Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Teaching Emerson to 9th Graders

(The following pictures were taken over a three day period while trekking Angor Wat in Cambodia a few weeks back. The blog written today after an awe inspiring American Lit class.)
“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’m sweating. Literally drenched in sweat. T-shirt. Brow. Soaked. Standing on a desk screaming. Telling a story about how I used to climb on the roof to fix the antenna with bailing wire and tinfoil so that my little brother could watch Hogan’s Heroes.
But nothing.
My students have no response at all.
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies inside us.” -RWE

I take my students outside to feel the afternoon breeze. I write instructions in yellow chalk on the blackboard that cause me to sneeze laughingly seven times in a row.
1. You are about to encounter nature.
2. You will carry a pen and your journal.
3. You will go outside and find something, anything that inspires you. A twig. A patch of moss. A tossed cigarette butt.
4. You will write a simple truth in your journal that this object inspires, and read it to the class.
5. Good luck. Remember to smile. God is watching.
“Thought is the blossom; language the bud; action the fruit behind it.” -RWE

My students are dead in the eyes.
They only study for tests. They hide math books in their laps while I recite Byron and Shelley.
They pass economics worksheets over one another’s shoulders while I sing Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen.
They talk aloud about theorems and calculus equations that will appear on the national exam in June while I rant and huff and puff about Emerson and individual freedom.
“The soul is not a compensation but a life” -RWE

I plead with them.
I beg them. But they are skeletons in suits.
These were my Shakespeare kids from last year. The ones who put on the Macbeth play. The ones who recited sonnets and danced to Lady Gaga in front of the whole school. The ones I used to make laugh so hard they fell out of their chairs. Now there is nothing between us.
“Be not the slave of your past.” -RWE

Outside I crouch next to Katie and Anne and rummage three leaf clovers. Then stroll with Jason around the rubber track. Catch Aden and Dave sitting with white flowers in their hands and I ask them about girls, but they answer in Chinese and look away.
“When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers.” -RWE

Back in the class the students lay their objects on the desk and begin to write. I write too. I take out leaves, yellow fallen leaves I have picked up from outside and put in my pocket. I take out a black felt tip pen and write my student’s names on one side and Emerson quotes on the other. Then I slowly walk up and down the aisles laying them on student’s desks. I whisper to them. I say, put these leaves in your text books. You will find them when you least expect it. They will wait for you forever.
“To believe in your own thoughts, to believe that what is true for your private heart is true for all men, that is genius.” - RWE

It’s just a moment before the bell rings. I’m seasoned. I watch the clock well. This job is not for the faint of heart. And my heart ain’t faint. One of the students, a girl nicknamed YoYo, writes about little cotton balls she has stuck on a stick like a kebab. She holds them high in the air like a little old woman beneath a parasol, like marshmellows roasting over a campfire, like a busted and bent TV antenna from the 70’s. I am screaming these descriptions from atop a chair as my students pile out of the room toward their national exam cram lessons.
When all they really need to survive is an afternoon outside, a pen, and a journal.

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