A Leap Into Vapor

Author: Brooke Pacy

On the kindergarten room wall, a crayon drawing of two smiling children bears the legend, “I feel Mad When Mie sister BotHers Me iN tHE MiDL OF SUmtHig.” Heartened by her dawning knowledge of phonics, the artist has plunged gamely into a new world of written thought and self-expression. Later, her teacher will hand her a corrected version of her sentence to take to the computer for practice in more conventional spelling. Safely experimenting with words that mean something to her, this 5-year-old may learn to love writing.


Two buildings away, a 17-year-old high school senior is in conference with her advanced-placement English teacher, setting up her research project. The young woman has chosen Toni Morrison, whose novels she will peruse independently throughout the semester along with all available criticism on them. She will hop a train from Baltimore to Philadelphia to interview an expert, a university teacher and critic, all while keeping notes, asking questions and formulating her own ideas about her subject. The end of her process will be not a dissertation but a question, a launching pad for new research on the author; the student will decide what hitherto unexplored dimension of Morrison’s work should find light.


Like the 5-year-old who first wields a crayon to change thoughts into symbols, this senior undertakes her foray alone into unmapped territory. She is testing her mind’s reach and her self-discipline, along with the confidence she has learned in weathering 12 years of formal education.


What happened in between? What enables her to resist the lures of Pizza Palace and General Hospital, not to mention the quicker, deadlier drugs more covertly available to all the dream-poor, and immerse herself on Friday afternoons in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature? Good question. So far, no one has come up with a definitive, prescriptive answer.


Obviously, it is easier to concentrate on learning if life offers happy, educated adult models — if one’s parents aren’t chewing each other up with the Healthy Choice dinner or getting shot at by drug dealers — but I have seen students from nightmare homes latch onto school as the one radiant, organizing principle, while others, apparently beloved and only gently prodded by literate parents, balk at any serious effort whatever. There is a reason in each case, but we can rarely know anyone thoroughly enough to be sure what it is.


Teaching, then, is an elusive process to describe, let alone to practice. We are talking about engaging someone’s attention and setting that someone on a path — preferably his or his own — through contact with some catalytic material like poetry or anatomy or quadratic equations. Success is chancy and impossible to measure accurately. With each student, the business is a leap into vapor, an act of faith, like hang gliding.


Once, with a group of breathless skiers, I watched a beginning hang glider learn to strap on his rig and launch from the top of the Kriegerhorn in the Austrian Alps. The student’s face showed nothing but alert attention as he followed his instructor’s moves, tested the tension in the harness, and ran beside the older man to the edge of the precipice . . . and out into 1,000 or so vertical feet of empty air, where the two sailed together on their bright wings, sweeping the valley in a gradual descent, nearly brushing the tops of pines as they reached the tree line of an opposite peak, arcing back and growing impossibly small with distance.


On the peak, we were pulled forward for a dizzy second into the weightless, kaleidoscopic joy of a hawk’s perspective. Static mountains melted into motion and rushed past. Most of us backed away from the edge, stomping our skis to calm our shaky legs. Where did the young man find the courage to jump? That’s teaching.


The potent charms are passion and trust. Without them, all the expertise in the world is wasted. Nobody — but nobody — is going to leap into the sky unless he wants desperately to fly and believes he can stay up. Experience tells me the same is true of a plunge into mathematics or literature. Course content, however basic or abstruse, is a vehicle, a set of wings on which we dive into deep questionings and recognitions — serious thought. Precious few space-age students have been nurtured in a climate of inquiry, and for most of them thinking is a hard, unnatural activity and the prospect of failure, like a free fall, terrifying. The guide who leads them out onto intellectual thin air must be trusted.


That is where those of us in a classroom have a thornier problem than the senior Alpine flier. No one needs hang gliding for a diploma or a job, so the association of those two men on the mountain was voluntary and free of clout. It can’t be matched in a required high school course in English literature when the teacher holds the power of the GRADE and the crucial COLLEGE RECOMMENDATION.


For better or worse, I am part of a system in which the process of learning is not perceived by most participants as an end in itself, but as a ladder to a particular elevation — college, law school, money, whatever. Many times, I’ve wished I could teach gardening — or, better yet, quit teaching and watch plants grow. I have to neutralize not only the ingrained aversion to strenuous mental effort in high school kids reared by TV sets, but also their natural wariness toward a being they know can rule their lives. If I fail, they will politic through my class, trying to please, but I will never hear them try out an honest, spontaneous opinion.


Because students need my rung on the ladder to ascend, there is no dissolving the balance-of-power issue; I grade their exams. I can only break it up with some creative confusion — fostering situations that distribute authority — and by developing for myself a kind of transparency. Trial-and-error has taught me that a teacher is effective only as a window. Just as I tell my creative writing students, “You are a camera, not a judge,” so I myself have to remember that a window doesn’t lecture about meaning or hold up preconceived expectations. It lets in light without supposing itself to be the source of the light.


My role is to persuade students of what they’re in the classroom for — to read complex and ambiguous material carefully, to think about what went on and why it might be important in their lives, and to find some natural and accurate way of speaking and writing about it. That’s it.


Whenever I feel explications of Ode on a Grecian Urn or Hamlet’s first-act soliloquy bubbling up in my throat, I must swallow hard and frame questions about unattainable desire, or point to the wide spaces Shakespeare leaves in his plays and gesture helplessly as students try to flesh out the scenes. The method makes for some uncomfortable classes. An average 18-year-old will accept the most irrational claptrap with relief rather than wade out into paradox on her own. She will retain an idiotic formula just long enough to spew it out verbatim on an exam and then consign it to the oblivion reserved for middle-aged lunacies and get on with her real life.


If the formula is repeated often enough, however, by most of her “authorities,” it may replace her natural good sense and become doctrine. So: the easy road for everyone to a final grade — just tell ‘em what to think — either separates your student forever from poetry or turns her into a candidate for a new Nazi youth movement.


Probably, the teacher response that most frustrates a student is, “Your guess is as good as mine.” Until the questioner hears it often and begins to believe it, though, she won’t look inside herself for true answers. She won’t learn that they are not to be found anywhere else — not in the teaching, not in the voices of the critics whom she must read to understand that there is no prescription for reading a poem — but only in one place, her encounter with the poem itself.


A teacher must weather the slings and arrows of that frustration for a while, along with the misery of keeping a hard-won vision of things quiet. It is difficult not to crow with delight when a student intuits precisely my Shakespeare, my Blake, my Virginia Woolf — obviously, a student who sees what I see is brilliant. Conversely, when someone writes a beautifully constructed, well-documented essay arguing that Polonius is a great father, I can’t call her a fascist and grade her with a Q minus for sensitivity. I have to reward her own trip through Hamlet with an A, so she will keep on traveling, and hope that a couple of questions in the margin, and life in the world, may change her perspective.


Mine to nurture, not to judge . . . but it has taken me a lot of suppressed outrage and a small drawerful of grateful letters from alumnae five or 10 years down the track to let go, really let go, of my own ivory tower of insight and allow students to know authors in their own way. It isn’t crucial that they see through my lens. They need to take away with them not definitions or glosses but the thrill of immediate confrontation with marvelous thought/language. They must believe they can read, love reading, keep reading — and questioning.


We don’t need any more pedantic bores in the world. We need confident thinkers who will cut through jargon and cant to say, “Hey, wait a minute . . . What do you mean, we’re going to bomb Buenos Aires . . .,” free-wheeling, curious minds.


We can grow them if we strike a balance between demanding material and risk-free exploration. If that 5-year-old with the crayon is never reprimanded for misspelling, she might try to use a word even more marvelous than “SUmtHig.” Older students need space in which to be graceless and confused. Not all have been through a supportive system that encourages them to find their own voices, and many are shocked to find that anyone wants to listen to them.


They need to forget the five-paragraph-essay and other artificial limitations, stretch to raise the questions they see, and flourish their loose ends proudly if solutions don’t come neatly boxed and tied. They have to find out what works in other writers’ languages and develop their own . . . and the process can’t cost them a place in the Yale freshman class or their parents’ esteem. At the risk of alienating editors everywhere, I submit that most student writing should be judged, if judged it need be, strictly on the attention it pays to its subject, on its thoughtful working through from a scene or a line or an event to an idea about it, the students’ own. Style consciousness, editing and revising, should come later. If a student keeps a journal as a reading companion and brings forth a few pieces from it for polishing — with an unlimited rewrite option — she will learn more about writing in a semester than she would from a year of weekly essays.


She will if she wants to. Ay, there’s the rub. How many of our young are born students, who would rather read than watch Wayne’s World? How do we make real life important? Perhaps simply by knowing that it is.


Those of us who suppose we instruct need to tattoo on our game-plan books William Blake’s maxim: “The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horse of instruction.” Deep feeling is not only more powerful but more judicious, more sensible, than secondhand thoughts. How to reach through a litter of TV commercials and tap it? Can it be done in a curriculum, a classroom — home of the domesticated “horses”? Who or what in our experience really teaches us? Conflict? Nature? Love? Stories? I have learned from the Brothers Grimm, from old Greek stories, from the wood of Maine and Michigan, from months at sea, from a thousand writers and an occasional goldfinch. . . .


Vicki Hearne, author of Adam’s Task, wrote a magnificent essay for the old, serious New Yorker magazine about her successful work training “incorrigible” horses. She said it was all a matter of getting at the story the animal had in its head about itself. To work with any living thing, we must first honor the creature’s individual nature — genius, as it was called by Elizabethans. Even a rosebush has an impulse toward what it is supposed to become.


Human beings, perhaps freer genetically than roses or horses, need to search out their essential stories by confronting the worlds outside them and bringing into the light for scrutiny and revision the programs laid on them early by parents and other teachers. They find out who they are by recognizing themselves — theirselves — in potential mirrors. Kids raised on myth and fairy tale and the clarity of wild creatures have an advantage, because, unlike the cheap one-liners and slogans of pop culture — all the buzzwords that skim the mind’s surface and fade out with the laughtrack — these older things tell truth and implant patterns. Beauty and the Beast and Eros and Psyche suggest courage and magnanimity as real options in a world that is miraculously rich with possibility and surprise—as are the words, shapes and colors with which we try to meet it.


When Saturday Night Live has left them laughing but unplumbed, students are hungry, I believe, for experiences that touch their own reality, that say to them, “Yes, this is true, and you are this.” When they can be allowed to see their own potential for passion and wisdom in great stories — of tragically misguided kings or uprooted Chinese women or black rebels against self-perpetuated oppression — they are clearer to themselves, enlarged and validated. Desire and recognition breed desire.


That is the hope that keeps the teacher in there, searching for the laser words that will penetrate the adolescent glaze, trying to conduct vital energy even when it looks as though the circuits are blown. Sometimes, as some pattern connects, we see light in the eye refracted from a deep, bright gaze inward. More often we don’t, though an occasional turn of phrase or revelation in a student journal signals sudden lively awareness. More often, the deep, interior bell rings much later, a delayed reaction to a music some students remember; then they write, “It was when I read Keats (or Atwood or Shakespeare) in your class that. . . .”


When I began to teach, I asked a friend, “How do I choose? English includes everything.” He said, “Just teach them to make value judgements so they don’t waste a lot of time with people who are going to let them down” — a grim comment and a tall order. Probably impossible. Then again, maybe only the impossible is worth trying. A current Nike ad slogan I hear our athletic coaches quote these days is, “Just do it.” There is something in that.


If I didn’t believe my students could be convinced of the creative power in their own mysterious natures, I would never get up at 5 a.m. to prepare a class or read student journals. I would sleep in on Monday mornings and grow marvelous roses.


When this essay was published, Brooke Pacy was a writer and English teacher in Baltimore.