Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control.
--- George Eliot, in Middlemarch
When I read this passage yesterday, I quickly thought of the big mask I bring to class each day, the one that says I’m supposedly a highly successful scholar and teacher, the one I wear because I don’t want students to guess what I’ve always suspected, that I’m as lost in the classroom as a small cloud in the widespread sky. I try my best to be a good teacher, but the truth is that I have only the tiniest idea of what that really means. I make up disciplined lessons, I look like a teacher with my tidy bow ties and shined shoes, and I speak like a bookish sage, but behind “the speaking-trumpet” is a man who can’t make out the mystery of this moment, much less the mystery of how to teach teenagers. I don’t mean to disproportionately demean myself. I know that I know as much as most teachers; it’s just that that’s about as small as a speck of sand on the shores of the oceans. Trying to teach human beings, to me, is as mysterious a process as prying open the mystery of why any of us are here in the first place. I might as well try to work out the math of why so many stars shine above us each night as try to tell how much real wisdom a student has gained by being in my class for 48 minutes. Like all of us, and like all of Eliot’s characters, I carry costumes around with me to make myself appear smart and skilled, but all the while I wonder whether my students, in their youthful, secret ways, know at least as much as I do about this stirring universe we share.