A Reflection on Beginning A New School Year
by Minnesota high school English teacher and poet Van Anderson:
I like to begin new classes each year by asking my student to jot down three questions they have about the course, the school, me, or life in general. I do this because I’m curious about their curiosities, and I also want to tell them about the class and give them a sense of their teacher.
I teach high school English, so students always ask about what books they’ll read, how many papers they’ll write, how hard a grader I am. And then there are questions about the meaning of life, my family, and when I began teaching. Occasionally a student will ask why I teach; this year there were several in one class who asked that.
I answered by referring to an article I’d recently read on the Star Tribune editorial page. The author, Christine Sikorski, describes waiting for news about her soon-to-be-adopted Chinese daughter, imagining the tiny girl being left in a basket somewhere in China and the pain associated with a mother’s footsteps fading away, the separation from first family and country.
At the same time, Sikorski writes about children in the news dying in countries around the world, in Lebanon, Israel, Rwanda, Sudan. She imagines one of those children as hers and wants to “will into being a world safe for children” but knows the world is already broken for her unseen daughter and others like her.
Given the great sorrows she knows her daughter will see and hear, Sikorski asks: “What can we say to convince our child that the world is whole enough, safe enough to set her feet upon, open her heart to- especially when we’re not convinced it is?”
Teachers might ask the same question about their own children or the children in their classrooms. And our answer might be similar to Sikorskis’s: “I don’t know. But we can teach her that despite the way loss marks each of us, love, too, is busy in the world.”
Teaching as an act of love may sound a bit soft in the hard currency of today’s education. But love is an organizing principle and perspective more than a starry-eyed fantasy. I still believe what I wrote in the January 2005 Educator: “To love a subject…is to love a small piece of the world or universe or a part of human history and expression, and to love that small piece is a step toward loving the whole.”
If teaching is not an act of love, perhaps it is at least an act of faith and hope. What we pass on to students may help them build a better world than the broken one we have inherited and seem to be passing on to them.
Certainly there is joy in life and teaching, but sometimes we may look at the insistent sorrow of the world, at its complex causes, and then at our students and feel a bit like Sisyphus, that character in Greek mythology. His task is to push a heavy rock to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll back down, but he always descends and begins pushing again.
At the beginning of each year, we put our collective shoulders to the rock in front of us, hoping we can begin to give students the understanding, skills, and tools to build a world whole enough to embrace their hearts and safe enough to bear their feet.
French writer Albert Camus retells the Sisyphus myth. At the end of the tale, Camus sees Sisyphus once again at the foot of his mountain, ready to shoulder his burden, dedicated to a “higher fidelity.” The story concludes: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”