I will never, ever, ever admit to having favorites, but in my fifth year, I taught a 9th grade Composition class whose students had tested Proficient or Advanced in reading and therefore needed extra enrichment. It was crazy-fun. And loud. The kids were bright, motivated and so argumentative that no matter what question I asked, there would be at least ten hands waving in the air with kids bouncing out of their seats, impatient to respond.
Any class discussion would always lurch wildly into unexpected, deep waters. I loved it, but as always, I had terrible trouble sticking to the objective of the day, particularly with 32 vociferous and opinionated kids on board. Erik, the fabulously chatty literacy coach from our school district who visited me from time to time, suggested that I boost their writing skills by finding a high-scoring essay from a previous year’s AP Lit exam and passing it around. The essay I found had scored the highest possible score of 9, (you can find anything online, anything!) My posted objective was for the students to analyze this 9-winning essay, but as always, we didn’t get there that day. The AP prompt was to analyze the poem “A Story,” by Li-Young Lee, and I realized that they’d never understand the essay without first reading the poem. So I handed it out:
by Li-Young Lee
Sad is the man who is asked for a story and can’t come up with one.
His five-year-old son waits in his lap. Not the same story, Baba. A new one.
The man rubs his chin, scratches his ear. In a room full of books in a world of stories, he can recall not one, and soon, he thinks, the boy will give up on his father.
Already the man lives far ahead, he sees the day this boy will go. Don’t go! Hear the alligator story! The angel story once more! You love the spider story. You laugh at the spider. Let me tell it!
But the boy is packing his shirts, he is looking for his keys. Are you a god, the man screams, that I sit mute before you? Am I a god that I should never disappoint?
But the boy is here. Please, Baba, a story? It is an emotional rather than logical equation, an earthly rather than heavenly one, which posits that a boy’s supplications and a father’s love add up to silence.
We read the poem together two times. Though the poem’s vocabulary is simple, the switches in point of view and time are at an almost-magical level of swiftness. The kids connected to the poem’s main emotion and were trying to put a finger on exactly why this father wants so badly to tell a story. Why is it so important? Why is he dumbstruck?
Joana raised her hand, a girl who sat in the back, wrote poetry, wore fingerless gloves and hung out with troublemaking boys. “Because he’s afraid that if he can’t tell a story, he won’t be able to stop time,” she said simply.
I was speechless. A more effective teacher would have had the presence of mind to ask a series of questions that would unpack the layers of irony in Joana’s statement. Instead, I stood as dumbstruck as the poem’s narrator, experiencing the poem again through Joana’s perception, freshly.
The rest of the usually boisterous class sat also silent for a moment, thirty-three people contemplating this particular, universal and impossible hope—as though Joana herself had accomplished what the narrator longed for, stopping time for an instant right here in the classroom while, together, we understood that time passes and you cannot hold onto the people you love no matter how much you want to. “Uh,” I finally said. “Wow.”
And then it was time for them to go to lunch.
If my goal that day was to get them to be better writers of academic, AP-style essays, judging by that one class alone, I’d have to say I totally failed. If anyone had been observing, I couldn’t have said what I accomplished, except that I didn’t achieve my day’s objective. I wouldn’t have even scored a “2” in questioning, or, for that matter probably, in anything. On the other hand, their academic writing got a lot better over the year. But was that because of that class? That poem? Their hard work? The fact that they came in very motivated? Their outside reading? Their amazing parents? The synergy of those particular crazy kids in one classroom throughout a year?
And even if I could answer those questions, it wouldn’t capture that single moment when a whole classroom of people stopped still, dazzled, thinking.
As we talk about what teaching means, is there a space for wonder?