Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Standing Sentry

Last week, I was totally preoccupied during one of my classes, and later, when I checked the dictionary, I realized that, to all intents and purposes, an enemy had seized me. The word “occupy” derives from the Latin for “seize”, so when my mind is preoccupied, it has virtually been seized by some formidable thought. I don’t recall the exact nature of the thought that had taken hold of my mind during that class, but I do remember the feeling of being mentally in custody. The thought, whatever it was, had me in handcuffs for at least the first half of the class. As I think about it today, I wonder how much of my teaching life has been spent in various kinds of preoccupation. Of course, there have been those occasional dark days when my mind was busy with thoughts of a personal problem, but there have probably also been too many days when some small but swashbuckling thought threw its weight around and managed to shackle me right in the presence of my students. I recall one such day when, believe it or not, I couldn’t stop thinking about which casual shirts I should buy for the summer, Orvis or Lands End. I was teaching the tail end of The Tempest, but the casual shirts decision kept carrying me away from Prospero’s final speech. My students might have made distinguished statements about the speech, but my thoughts, alas, were on shirts instead of students, and so their words almost certainly coasted right past me. What’s really disappointing is how often this kind of inattention happens when I’m simply preoccupied with what I’m going to say next. Just today, a student was speaking about a line of poetry, and I know, thinking back, that I didn’t hear him with full awareness because I was formulating what I wanted to say about the line. This kind of distressing failure happens way too often in my teaching. I need to do better. I need to stand sentry for my mind, making sure it stays free and spirited for this hard work of teaching teenagers.

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