Saturday, August 14, 2010

Uncovering Stone Walls

This morning, as I was clearing underbrush from the woods around the house, I uncovered an old stone wall, and it reminded me that I would be uncovering some young students starting in a few weeks. It’s taken me many years to realize that that is, in fact, my main job as an English teacher – to uncover the multi-layered and already enlightened young human beings that lie beneath the sometimes hard-boiled exteriors my students show in the classroom. Of course, part of my task is to show them some helpful concepts and skills, but those will be helpful only if the wise interior lives of the kids can be brought out in the open. Like the old stone wall I discovered today, there’s already something priceless in each of my students that needs to be revealed – a fresh and unsullied kind of understanding and, yes, sagacity. The poet William Wordsworth, in his “Intimations Ode”, seemed to understand what happens to some kids as they grow up and “[s]hades of the prison-house begin to close / [u]pon” them – shades pulled down by the various confining notions and practices of our culture. It happens mostly, I think, because we simply don’t believe children can be wise on their own – that, to use Wordsworth again, they don’t bring any “clouds of glory” with them in their youth, but must be taught to be wise by adults. I’ve seen it differently for many years – seen teenagers take me into the heart of poems, teach me truths about writing, show me new secrets about novels. Certainly I’ve taught them valuable things (I hope) from my advantageous adult perspective, but from the fresh and shining perspective of youth, my students have been my teachers as well. Perhaps that’s why I hope to uncover the wealth of wisdom they already possess – so I can be their student as well as their teacher.

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