Sunday, August 30, 2009

Peripheral Vision

          I can’t say which I see first – his eyes or his smile but they are connected. He has blue eyes that are so deep set that they look like two portals in a ships cabin looking out on the sea.

          The fluidity of his eyes is in stark contrast to the solidity of the rest of his face- the straight nose and teeth, the square chin, the strong cheekbones. Unlike other men his age, whose faces have expanded with age, my husband Nate’s has thinned. All of the fat has been drained from beneath his skin and sometimes, when he’s not smiling, his face and neck can appear slack, his eye sockets darkening and he can look for an instant like the head atop a Halloween skeleton, prompting people to ask him if he’s lost a lot of weight lately.

          He used to be fatter, it’s true and since his father died of a heart attack in 1997 and his younger brother had by pass surgery before he was 40, Nate’s changed his life style and those changes have become evident on his body and face.

         He has these really strong legs and he’s quick, though not as quick as he once was. And he plays basketball – sometimes up to 4 times a week.

          It’s been a while since I’ve seen him play. I remember when we were young, I would feel a thrill watching how he was transformed on the court. The sweat dripping from his thin brow to his full beard, his hair wild and his blue eyes gleaming with the intensity of total immersion in the moment – the play – the shot, springing up on his haunches, making the foul shot, slamming his smaller body into the larger ones surrounding him with abandon, then waiting, bouncing from foot to foot, alert, taking it all in.

          It is his eyes, of course, that I come back to – the window to his soul - how they appeared to me then when I watched him. He had the most astounding peripheral vision; he could fake and feint --- the ease of these moves belying the years and years of practice. He could look straight ahead, dribble the ball and without moving his gaze or his body, pass the ball to the man who was circling behind him to his left.

          When I met him that night in Doc Watson’s pub 35 years ago, he must have been noticing me from the corner of his eye. He appeared next to me, after sidling up to the bar to order a “gingah ale.” I turned to him and said, “Say my name. I love how people from New York say my name. It’s Marsha.”

          It was then that he turned his full gaze on me and I saw those eyes for the very first time –cool and clear as ice water but bestoying upon me a warmth and light I had never felt before.

          “Ah, Mah-sha,” he said, renaming me and claiming me as his right there on that bar stool.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

September Approaching -- The Time for Teacher Dreams Redux

Anyone who has ever taught school for more than a year has had this dream. It usually arrives mid August, though in some especially stressful years, it can come as early as July, virtually ruining the rest of the summer. There is always a teacher in the dream and the teacher is always the person dreaming. Sometimes, when I have this dream, the teacher in the dream looks like me. Sometimes, she is physically unfamiliar – I don’t know exactly who she is but I do know that I am the person feeling the physical effects of the emotions she is experiencing in the dream – embarrassment, fear, frustration, despair.

The common element in all of these dreams is that no one (and there are usually dozens of people in the dream’s hallways, lunchrooms, school yards gymnasiums) seems to see or hear the teacher. Maybe there are no words coming out of the teacher’s mouth though in the dream the dreamer feels herself strain to speak. Her throat tightens and the sweat begins to form on her forehead, her hands turn cold and wet and in her sleep she reaches towards her face and clamps both of her cheeks with her fingers as her nails dig into the clammy skin.

In the morning she will see the scratches on her face and vaguely remember…

Sometimes she is in the wrong room. There is someone else's handwriting on the board, someone else’s books on the shelves, a periodic chart or a large map of India on the wall instead of her portraits of Shakespeare and the Globe Theater.

Once she was in a gymnasium, the only teacher in a room filled with five hundred students all milling about, forming and reforming tight circles while screaming their greetings to each other across the hot room. There are no windows in this gym though the ceiling is high. She is the one who is supposed to bring this group to order, get them under control. She is shorter than most of them and she feels herself shrinking, becoming smaller and smaller the hotter it gets. The voices in the gym swell to a thunderous roar that engulfs her and lifts her high above the shiny wooden floor and carries her through the ceiling which has just opened up to reveal the grey skies. As the noise subsides, she freezes high above the school, hangs suspended in mid air until she feels herself hurtling through space.

She awakens before she can hit the ground…

What we are suffering from here is a failure to communicate.

Disinterested students who ignore you.

Smart students who excoriate you publicly, flaying you with their questions and serving your organs up raw to the bloodthirsty class.

Teaching as a blood sport.

On a good day, though, I see this work as a sacred trust.

There are souls in the classroom.

And I don’t say this lightly or without deep careful thought. The whole concept of Soul is one of a mystical connectedness that comes from a kabbalistic belief in tikkun olam - the understanding that we are all pieces of the ONE that split apart after creation, and that we must each work to repair the world to reconnect all of the pieces of the Soul. So each time a teacher walks into a classroom, the possibility exists for disconnection and alienation or for tikkun olam.

This kind of connection is thwarted by Ego -- the overwhelming urge of the individual psyche to assert itself over others. A teacher’s ego may make her chase after power, both petty and grand; a student may be craving attention, wanting to aggrandize himself at the expense of others.

Here then is a theory of practice that comes from the Soul where the driving force behind every word or deed in the classroom comes from the need to connect with others in a meaningful way.

These teacher dreams, night terrors that begin as early as July and don’t let up until September really expose our fear of being alone – alienated – isolated – invisible – frantically trying to make the connection… to encounter and be encountered by the Soul..

To teach with integrity is to teach with all parts of you….and to be humble in the face of other people’s lives… their journeys… their struggles to connect.

People who cannot see beyond their own needs and thoughts are struggling with a handicap. Weighted down by their own ego, constrained by their own selfish desires, they are missing out on the awesome apprehension of the majestic complexity of the universe. When we see that – when we get it -- when we can hear the music and know our song and how it reverberates with others’ … or wake up to sound of our voice singing in concert with the voices of others… step into our body moving and swelling – joyful in the knowledge that what makes us unique – those very things that we have cherished as ours and ours alone – are felt by others too.

So when I write or share my experiences and send them out into the universe, they reverberate for someone else. Yes, you might say. This is what it feels like to… This is what it looks like to.. Your words have shown me… Your words have touched me… Your words have moved me out of myself into a new and initially frightening place…Your words have taken me somewhere I needed to go then led me right back to myself.

As teachers we need to embrace the night terrors that come to us in the summer and welcome them into our lives, grateful for the reminder that there is still so much work that needs to be done to keep the Ego in check – to banish it to our sleep where our dreams remind us of the primordial rule of teaching – of all human interaction – only connect.