Monday, June 07, 2010

Slight Words and Deeds

“Very slight words and deeds may have a sacramental efficacy, if we can cast our self-love behind us, in order to say or do them.”
-- George Eliot, in Felix Holt, The Radical

When I’m teaching, I often focus so much on conveying the major points of my lesson that I lose sight of the power of “slight words and deeds”. My method of communicating the themes of the lesson is important, but so are my small gestures and actions, as well as the many assorted comments I make during class. Even the way I greet a student could almost “have a sacramental efficacy”, as Eliot puts it – almost the power of something sacred, something placed in the student’s hands with reverence and respect. If I look directly at a student and say “good morning” with consideration and sincerity (not casually and carelessly), the student might, for a moment, feel set apart with a special stature. Eliot says it requires that I “cast […] self-love behind” me, meaning I must step out of my separate, self-absorbed existence and be thoroughly present with my students. I’m often only two-thirds present when I’m teaching, partially there in the classroom but also, in some measure, far away with my traveling thoughts. In order to give my smallest gestures and most ordinary words an air of distinctiveness, I have to drop my separateness, step away from superiority and airiness, and stay steadily where I am, right in the midst of some inimitable teenagers. If I take my full presence with them seriously, then even a turn of my head, a slight smile, a simple sentence like “What do you think, Tom?” could feel like a stroke of good fortune to a young person.

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