Saturday, August 13, 2011


"Hat and Plume", oil, by Cecil Irving
A colleague told me, years ago, that when she was teaching, she imagined herself wearing a clown’s costume and carrying a spoonful of water, and slowly but increasingly the significance of her statement has become clear to me. She never fully explained what she meant, but over the years I’ve begun to see it as an assertion about the importance of both humility and precision, both ingenuousness and absolute attentiveness to the task at hand. Perhaps, as she stood before her students, the imaginary clown costume served to remind her how relatively inconsequential she was in the vast design of the universe, sort of like a silly clown carrying on in its insignificant ways. When I become too puffed up with my own supposed importance, like a clown claiming center stage in a circus, I picture myself in a clown costume, which helps me remember how silly it is to consider myself any more special than a single star among the zillions in the sky. As a teacher, yes, I’m important, but so are all the sights and sounds sent to my students by this ever-unfolding universe. On the other hand, while I’m teaching, I also try to see myself holding – carefully balancing – a spoonful of water. This is the other side of the story of teaching – seeing myself as a totally serious and focused professional. Through all the swervings and tossings and submergings of a typical English class, I must hold the spoonful of water – the goal of my lesson -- delicately and firmly in hand. I may be no more special than a foolish clown, but I’m a clown carrying a singular responsibility. In this way, I can good-naturedly laugh at myself and, at the same time, make any specific lesson an absolute success.

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