Odd Things

JacketMy most memorable brush with a celebrity came on a rainy night in Oregon when I bumped up against William Stafford near a table of crackers and cheese at a function in Portland. He was in his 70s by then; I still had the glow of an undergraduate English degree about me. Stafford had already been Poet Laureate, published thousands of poems, and was known in colleges everywhere for powerful poems like “Traveling through the Dark.” We exchanged pleasantries, I probably said something stupid about admiring his work, and as we parted he cupped my elbow with a wrinkled hand and said: “Be careful driving home.”

I came upon a poem by Stafford this week, one I didn’t remember, called “What’s in My Journal.” The title serves as context for the series of words that follow, a list of miscellany as purposefully chosen as a duelist’s sword.

Reading that poem got me thinking about memory and middle life, and the list of my own. As an educator, it also prompted me to consider my role, and the role of teachers and schools, in the filling of our students’ proverbial journals.

Stafford describes his own as he writes:

Odd things, like a button drawer. Mean
things, fishhooks, barbs in your hand.
But marbles too. A genius for being agreeable.
Junkyard crucifixes, voluptuous
discards. Space for knickknacks, and for
Alaska. Evidence to hang me, or to beatify.
Clues that lead nowhere, that never connected
anyway. Deliberate obfuscation, the kind
that takes genius. Chasms in character.
Loud omissions. Mornings that yawn above
a new grave. Pages you know exist
but you can’t find them. Someone’s terribly
inevitable life story, maybe mine.”

Our students fill that “space for knickknacks, and for Alaska” day by day, week by week, and year by year, largely within the school community they call home. The treasures they collect are their own, both “fishhooks” and “marbles too,” but the importance of the adults around them, and the atmosphere those adults help to create, can’t and shouldn’t be undervalued.

Teachers matter more than most. There is no more powerful incubator for experience than a classroom, and the time students share with peers and teachers helps to shape perspective on the world. Every student can describe the teacher who mattered most to them, and many, decades after they’ve thrown their mortarboards in the air, can trace a change in their life’s trajectory to a single moment in a specific classroom somewhere along the way.

And so we should ask ourselves how we are promoting marbles over fishhooks. We should consider how we might best strive to demonstrate a “genius for being agreeable,” even as we challenge students to challenge themselves.

As we work together to develop and nurture a purposeful school community, it helps me to pause long enough to read a few lines of poetry and reflect, to use Stafford’s analogy, on what’s in my journal, and maybe how I can help point out a clue or two to my students as they fill their own pages day after day, week after week, and year after year. 

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