Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Looking For Stillness

The bell rings, a combination of a shrill electronic note and the clang of tradition. The hallways flood with students. Someone is screaming in short staccato bursts. Four middle schoolers race down the hall at full tilt, yelling wild, incoherent squalls at each other, looking to be first in the cafeteria line. Their thunderous feet shake the building. A senior throws his backpack over the stairway; it lands with a solid thump on the first floor, nearly braining a sophomore girl making her way upstairs. Screams, screams, screams—two annoying juniors are laughing like hyenas: that is all they do—walk from one end of the hallway to the other shrieking like metal on metal, like a semi slamming into the center divider at eighty miles an hour. Stupid stuff.

I stand against the wall, eyes half closed, looking for the still point of destruction.

A stone tossed into a quiet pond radiates in concentric circles outward in tiny waves; so too does stillness begin at the center and ripple out. So I am trying to be still, to quiet the world from within. Most days, the world will not cooperate.

I was told by someone last week that I am “too emotional.”

My response, sitting here in my study on an unseasonably cold night? Do not mistake my intensity for hyperbolic emotion.

There is poetry in a grizzly bear, grace in the lumbering gait of an elephant. Somewhere, deep in the heart of the earth, magma shifts and the mountains grow a few inches. Air travel and capitalism are disrupted around the world by a cloud of ash.

Passion and intensity are good things, but through the cacophony of daily life, we also look for a small place of stillness.

Meditation: concentrate on the breathing, awareness, in, and out. My mind wanders. Stop. Refocus. Concentrate on the breathing, awareness, in, and out.

I go back to the orgiastic drone of maniacal life.

I know with the certainty of blood that I need to listen to the silences. Teaching is a way of life: literature, writing, words—all life.

Sometimes I fail to live the life the way I should. I must regroup, refocus, concentrate on the breathing, bring myself back to myself. This is who I am. This is what I do.

Simply knowing a subject, or the various theories and methodologies to teach it, does not make one a teacher. Some of the worst, most inept, recalcitrant failures are people who have all the degrees, credentials, and paperwork. They went to the finest schools of education. They are on the fast track. But they do not live the life, and therefore, they impede the forward motion. They clog the system.

Some days, I think they are the only ones working in education. The true believers, the ones who live the life and know the stillness that radiates outward, they have left the building. They have been run out by the know-nothings, the theorists who remain in the institution because as the cliché runs, “those who can’t, teach.” That is why education is a mess in this country. That is why the system fails—because most of the people in it, leading it, legislating it, are failures at understanding people. They love charts and graphs and computer data, but they do not understand the human soul or the power of learning. They do not find solace or comfort in the heat of a mind on fire.

In a few short days, my students will be sitting for the annual Advanced Placement exams. They are studying their literary terms, their test questions, the structure of essays, poems and stories. They practice writing. They take sample examinations.

I have been asked why I do not give more practice tests to prepare them. I have given my students three complete AP sample tests, but what is it with these small-minded people who think learning is all about drilling a test? Being an educated person, someone who loves to learn and absorb his world, is not simply about practicing or taking a single test.

To learn, we must question and think critically.

Be open to all things.

Listen and analyze.

Understand people and cultures, and believe in the power of their stories.

To teach, we must work from a still point inside so we can absorb the tumult of the world.

So I am looking for stillness. Some moments, I lose it; I despair; I am filled with anxiety. Then I go to my books, my philosophies, my poetry. I return to who I am, to what I feel called to do. If one is not passionate and emotional about learning, if the human mind is not sacred, she should quit the classroom and go home. This is not a job for robots or bureaucrats, or for those who hide behind mind-numbing paperwork and titles. Teaching demands passion, intensity, love of humanity, and wisdom.

The real test never ends. There is always more to learn and understand. It is a big town with a lot of streets and possibilities, hopes and dreams, journeys of a thousand miles and more.

“Come, my friends, ‘tis not too late to seek a newer world,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote. From a still place at the center of our souls, we must radiate peace out into the world. We must listen. We must be intensely passionate and filled with conviction that our work will lead to truth, that we will make this “newer world” a reality.


  1. I couldn't agree more. But I have hope that there are still some of us left in the system, ones who value education for the sake of education because of what it adds to the human experience.

    And I hope you do find your stillness.

  2. just yesterday thinking of a very passionate, truthful singer i knew, and thought i should be more like that (have/show more passion) yet i prefer stillness, the energy of stillness, even in friendships...a paradox!

    you write beautifully...

  3. Thank you both so much for reading and commenting.

    Mr. B., I not only hope there are some of us left in the system, I am counting on us to turn American education around. Once we get past the latest theories "on educating the whole child," teachers who are passionate and committed can have a discussion about the art, craft, and practice of teaching in the classroom. I am always energized and reinvigorated when I sit down with my like-minded colleagues and discuss what we do.

    Angel-Star, I often think about successful people I have observed in other professions and how they go about doing what they do to see if I could "borrow" some techniques for the classroom. Although teaching is nothing like other businesses, there are strategies out there that with some modification can be applied to the classroom.

    I really like the way you wrote, "the energy of stillness." As an "excitable person," I often find it takes greater energy to pull back and be still. It is part of that ever-present ego to jump to the defense when I feel attacked. Have to dump the ego if we want to find that quiet place.

    Take care, both of you.

  4. "through the cacophony of daily life, we also look for a small place of stillness"

    Were you in my head, I in yours? Did I see you as you stood the wall? Did you wonder why I sat the couch apart from the crowd? I wrote this...other words...other circumstances at near the time you wrote yours. And wishing that my silence could ripple, yet having no greater luck.

    Came over from Williams. Love this. Thank you!

  5. "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
    There is hope in them and for them yet, though it's true, there seem to be fewer and fewer of us who realize that so important truth that an education is useful in a much bigger way than success in the world, that it is what makes a man more than himself, what makes him part of humanity. They drive us crazy, but those children can still come out with the most heartbreakingly beautiful surprises. You are a lucky man to have the chance, the terrible wonderful chance, to draw that out of them. You have my respect, thoughts, and prayers, for all the good that is. :) Good luck always.

  6. You are surely a wonderful teacher, Paul, whatever the naysayers say. You exude the wonders of stillness though your writing and it's entralling.

    I follow your bog, Paul but William alerted me to this one in reference to his letter from a friend. What a letter. What a response.

  7. Thank you all for your comments, and I owe a huge debt to William for steering readers my way.

    I guess we are all looking for a little silence in this hectic world.

    Wine and Words, I love your name. Those are the two items I would love to enjoy after a hard day at work. As for your comment, we have found common ground. What I thought was a lonely experience has turned into something shared by a number of people. I guess we all have those moments in the eye of the storm.

    don't be emily, I love your line "the terrible chance." Working with teenagers really feels that way. The world makes such an impression on them, and they feel it with so much passion and emotion. They do not yet know how to be restrained and reserved. When joyful, they let you know; the same goes for anger, sadness and everything else.

    Elisabeth, I appreciate your complement. Your words are always thoughtful and full of grace.


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