Fridays move quickly at ESLA. The normal long blocks spread over two days are smashed together into the full run of all blocks in one day.
Our “dean-team” meeting started a little late and finished a little late. I went upstairs in a trance, a mental list of bullet points hardening in the mind, and sat at my desk. All was quiet. Too quiet? Am I supposed to be someplace? The clock on the wall is obviously not right-that would make me twenty minutes late to 8th grade English. Oh no!
I grab my Norton Anthology and trot downstairs-still no whoops of mayhem-surely someone would have found me before the merry band gallivanted out to master ping-pong and play in traffic.
I cross the threshold of Room 2, and feel the way actors do when they decide to rub their eyes to check for clear vision. A cluster of youngsters are circled in a pool of light by the big window. Their Nortons lie open on their laps. Will is asking Cindy what she thinks Emerson means when he says that travel is a fool’s paradise. Nichole raises her head from her book, “Hi Mr. Dewis.”
“We’re having class.”
They look to me.
“I’m sorry I’m late-don’t let me interrupt.”
I take a chair and join the circle. Thomas leans to me and says quietly, “We’re on the bottom of page 546.”
It is a dream of mine to stand up in the middle of class and walk out the door, knowing that, once ignited, the fire will continue to crackle without any need for a teacher. I am suspicious of a teacher who is not delighted by the idea of her own obsolescence. Some day, rest assured, we will be gone.
Cindy says, about the fool’s paradise, that Emerson is not objecting to all traveling, just some kinds.
A number of hands go up. I am trying to keep from any outward show of emotion, like tears. Raising hands is not a method whereby a teacher’s authority is reinforced by a show of patience and order. It is the natural method whereby we can hear each person speak her mind, without fighting to be heard. It doesn’t matter who calls on the hands, provided someone bothers to do it. Will calls on Ben.
“Yes, it’s only if we travel to be amused. Mr. Emerson says that we shouldn’t expect to find something that we don’t already carry with us.”
Will says, “I think we can call him Ralph.”
Thomas says, “But what does it mean that he has no ‘churlish’ objection to circumnavigating the globe, when he clearly doesn’t like it.”
Will: “Any volunteers to look up churlish in the big dictionary?”
I raise my hand.
“Thanks Mr. Dewis.”
I open the twelve-volumes-in-two Oxford English Dictionary with tiny print and read the definition for churl, old English for the domestic male correlate to wife, i.e. husband. It has come to mean a simple, boorish person. “So it seems,” I offer, “that Ralph thinks there are simple-minded reasons to object to travel, and then other, better reasons.”
Thomas pipes in, “But why does the bad kind of travel make us”-and he reads for the line- “grow old, even in youth among old things?”
Will says, “That reminds me of something Diana said a minute ago, about memory.”
Cindy continues, “Maybe travel is like remembering old things.”
And Thomas, “And that’s why he says here we bring ruins to ruins. Isn’t that funny? Ruins to ruins?”
And Cindy, “Doesn’t he call memory a monster?”
Dean is sitting on a narrow coffee table holding his knees, “No, he calls it a corpse. A monstrous corpse dragged about from place to place.”
And Ben, “So travel is like memory, because when we travel places like Egypt and Greece we are visiting old places and remembering old things, like ruins.”
Walker: “And remember where he says it’s poison to look anywhere outside ourselves, I can’t find the place. Isn’t that right, Mr. Dewis?”
“I can’t think of which place you mean specifically, but he is clear in saying we should never try to escape ourselves, and that travel might be just such a try.”
Anna is distraught: “But why is it so bad to want to get away from ourselves? Sometimes it’s nice to have a rest, and to see other things!”
A great spontaneous objection-Emerson, for what it is worth, would be happy. Class is over. The assignment usually presents itself near the end of class. “Your only assignment for the weekend is to do what Anna just did: find one thing you disagree with in Emerson’s Self-Reliance. If he’s right about relying only on yourself, then we shouldn’t hang on everything he says. And if he’s wrong, then we really shouldn’t hang on everything he says! Identify the specific paragraph, why he thinks what he thinks, and why you disagree.”
It is an odd, rare little school. Your children are loved here. My dream was that I could walk out of class and that it would just keep running, not that I would stumble into class to discover I need not even turn up. Now that the 8th grade has delivered my dream in the first month of school, I guess I’m going to have to dream bigger.
John Dewis, Dean of Curriculum