Thou were not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown.”
-- John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”
It’s always been interesting to me that Keats places an emperor and a clown side by side, and, when I was teaching, I often thought of this puzzling pairing as I paced around my classroom in my commanding, sometimes puffed-up manner. Keats suggests in his poem that there isn’t really much difference between an emperor and a clown, and I gradually came to see that the same might be true for a teacher and a clown. The emperor pretends to be stouthearted and shrewd, while in his heart, if he’s wise, he secretly sighs at his own pompous foolishness, and something similar often happened to me when I was teaching. I saw myself standing before my students like some sort of sage or sheriff, but at the same time I saw the clown in me, the jester who joked with self-absorbed Mr. Salsich to help him see that he actually didn’t know much about anything. In this way, teaching gradually became, for me, a sometimes joyous play-acting experience, in which, as the teacher-actor, I controlled my classroom to create at least an impression of expertise and wisdom, while the prankster inside me, the one who knew that most things are, in the end, altogether mysterious, wandered around in continuous amazement. I worked hard as a teacher, but I also was able to smile at my silly sense of self-importance. I realized, as the years passed, that I was just one infinitesimal role-player in the vast drama of my students’ lives. I enthusiastically played my role of literary prince and pilot for my students, sincerely hoping to help them in significant ways, but the clown in my heart gradually got the truth of things, and smiled and sat back.
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