This morning I had another idea for this blog until I found a poem that turned my head around. It is today’s poem on the website A Year of Being Here, a wonderful site for a mindfulness poem every day. This one is called “Love in the Classroom” by Al Zolynas. I am inserting my thoughts about this poem underneath each section of it. This is pretty random, as I just read the poem for the first time less than 10 minutes ago.
Afternoon. Across the garden, in Green Hall,
someone begins playing the old piano—
a spontaneous piece, amateurish and alive,
full of a simple, joyful melody.
The music floats among us in the classroom.
My first thought is how music has to be played joyfully. As someone learning an instrument, I know how hard it is to get caught up in technicalities and lose all joy. So the poet speaking of the music as “simple, joyful melody” caught my attention.
I stand in front of my students
telling them about sentence fragments.
I ask them to find the ten fragments
in the twenty-one-sentence paragraph on page forty-five.
They’ve come from all parts
of the world—Iran, Micronesia, Africa,
Japan, China, even Los Angeles—and they’re still
eager to please me. It’s less than half
way through the quarter.
They bend over their books and begin.
Hamid’s lips move as he follows
the tortuous labyrinth of English syntax.
Yoshie sits erect, perfect in her pale make-up,
legs crossed, quick pulse minutely jerking her right foot. Tony,
from an island in the South Pacific, sprawls
limp and relaxed in his desk.
This took me right into the classroom, those quiet moments when the students actually engage fully in a task, no matter how difficult. That was a good thing. But then, it also reminded me I haven’t done much with teaching sentence fragments, and that my monolingual student has recently got lost in the dust as we’ve been reading a novel and I haven’t done enough to help her understand. Teachers can’t read anything about teaching without seeing their own faults.
The melody floats around and through us
in the room, broken here and there, fragmented,
re-started. It feels Mideastern, but
it could be jazz, or the blues—it could be
anything from anywhere.
I sit down on my desk to wait,
and it hits me from nowhere—a sudden,
sweet, almost painful love for my students.
I remember clearly the first day I had a moment like this. It was during my first year of teaching and the class was celebrating the last day of one of my brightest students and best writers, Emily, who was moving out of state. The students were engaged in some kind of assignment before the celebration began and I just looked around and thought, “I am actually here. I love every single one of them. This is the unbelievable. I am actually here. I’m a teacher.”
“Nevermind,” I want to cry out.
“It doesn’t matter about fragments.
Finding them or not. Everything’s
a fragment and everything’s not a fragment.
Listen to the music, how fragmented,
how whole, how we can’t separate the music
from the sun falling on its knees on all the greenness,
from this moment, how this moment
contains all the fragments of yesterday
and everything we’ll ever know of tomorrow!”
Instead, I keep a coward’s silence.
The music stops abruptly;
they finish their work,
and we go through the right answers,
which is to say
we separate the fragments from the whole.
This last part of the poem is simply the best. The fragments do make the whole. Yesterday in this blog I took fragments and made something new. But even more compelling for me is that just this morning I was reading about teachers in Ohio who mistreated students just because their parents opted their children out of the state test. I was sick to think of teachers who refused to give candy bars or recess to students whose parents made a decision for them. I want to believe all teachers will remember and live to the core what John Dewey said: all experiences live on in future experiences. We are with young people, and we need to do our best to remember it is our job to make experiences worth living in the future.
Okay, that was my soapbox. The true meaning and insight from those last two stanzas is that we need to take the time to recognize joy when it is in front of us. We need to know it is okay to stop the lesson.
I do recall a day like that many years ago. My classroom overlooked a pond, and a family of Sandhill Cranes had come to drink. One of my students noticed, so we took a few minutes just to enjoy watching those majestic birds living their ordinary life.
We, too, live ordinary lives. We are constantly dealing with the fragments, and hoping to put them together into something whole. When the extraordinary shows up, let’s vow to listen to the music, watch the birds, smile at the child. It is okay to be whole for a moment. Life will get back to its regularly scheduled fragmentation in due time.