Starting Up

The other day, as I considered the routine of my teaching life, I was wondering (again) about the thousand little decisions that occur in every class. What was I hoping to achieve? How might I get there? A teacher lives a class-period in a state of hyper-awareness, tracking (and, on a good day, weaving) both the threads of discussion and the simultaneous connections and disconnections happening all around him. It is far from a routine experience, even if it happens every day. “It is exhausting and startling,” I said to myself. And the word “startling” stirred familiar memory.

Whenever my students reach Walden’s chapter Higher Laws, I gird myself for their responses. Already poked and prodded for some 200 hundred pages, they enter this chapter’s room to find that woods-loving, pine-needle-appreciating Henry has adopted the tone of a scold. Worse yet, he has decided to take on appetite and its physicality, areas of life that seventeen-year-olds are exploring with more than a little fascination.

As he warms to his lesson, Thoreau writes the following:

If the hunter has a taste for mud-turtles, muskrats and other such savage tidbits, the fine lady indulges a taste for jelly made of a calf’s foot, or for sardines from over the sea, and they are even. He goes to the millpond, she to her preserve pot. The wonder is how they, how you and I, can live this slimy beastly life, eating and drinking.

“O, please,” I recall one student saying and dropping her book in disgust at this point. “What’s the alternative?” And in that moment, I thought, exactly; that’s exactly the question Thoreau wants, because he follows this wondering with one of Walden’s memorable, compact moments.

“Our whole life is startlingly moral,” he writes. “What’s that mean?” I ask, and silence usually ensues. Into it I trickle this question: “Did you take a shower this morning?” A little nervous laughter. Teachers are weird, I see them thinking. “Okay,” says one. “I’ll bite; yes, I took a shower.” And in the discussion that follows we talk about warm water versus cold, about soap and its types, about whether or not shampoos have been animal tested on sensitive eyes. What swirls down the drain and where does it go? we ask.

What about your lunch? What about your shoes? Your belt? Your bag? Your laptop? Questions stack up rapidly; it’s easy to imagine a point of paralysis. I notice that we’re all leaning forward over our tables and suggest that we sit back and take a deep breath. “Now I don’t think Thoreau wants us to drown in a welter of micro-decisions,” I say, “but he does want your initial question to be alive in our minds. What’s the alternative seems exactly on point.”

“So there’s the connection with the central theme of being awake,” says another student. “You have to be fully awake to even think that there’s an alternative, and then to think what that alternative might be. There’s an awakeness about being startled.”

Yes, there is; we wake from the complacency of routine, of herd-life, with a start; we begin to be individuals as a start. And that’s part of what I want for my students, and for myself.

And you? What startles you?

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