Editor’s note: This commentary is by Tal Birdsey, of Ripton, who is the co-founder and head teacher at the North Branch School in Ripton and author of “A Room for Learning: The Making of a School in Vermont” and the forthcoming “Hearts of the Mountain: A Teacher, Adolescents, and a Living School.”
It’s well below zero degrees and rains of a January thaw have pooled and iced over the Doug Walker Field. We’re still waiting for snow. When I walk into the school on this dark morning a few students are milling around the big table. Nate is talking about the Liverpool Football Club with Oscar. Eli excitedly shows me a pile of old Wall Street Journals, and he wants me to check out a fascinating story about a major art heist in Germany. My eye flashes over a headline that says something about the rise of authoritarianism around the globe. I am thinking about the previous night, when I couldn’t sleep, due to having read too many news articles on the fires in Australia and the assassination of an Iranian general. And in the morning, after that sleepless night, I hear from a parent whose daughter’s friend has committed suicide. These factors have my heart pounding. I am on edge. And the whole day is before me, 25 adolescents, seven hours, and the goal to make good things happen.
I am trying to think about the three chapters of "I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings" we are going to discuss in an hour. I am thinking of how I am going to show the seventh graders slides of Michelangelo’s “David” to try to understand how an artist changed the world with a revolutionary vision. I want them to pay attention to the size of the hands and David’s gaze at the moment he contemplates entering the battle. I am thinking about Iris’ project from the day before when she taught us about the poetry of Georgia Douglass Johnson. I am thinking about whether the other kids in the class learned anything about the Harlem Renaissance. Did the poetry of the women of the Harlem Renaissance matter to them? Was it knowledge they might fold into their thoughts and deeds? I am thinking of the words of Martin Luther King Jr: “Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.” It sounds easy, but it’s not. How will we school them today to have both intelligence and character?
The ACTR bus has just arrived. I hear loud yelling in the entry. Hugs and laughter. A clattering of stomping boots and rustling coats. The school is waking up. Someone has gotten braces or someone else got a haircut. At the big room table, Nate is looking through the Vermont State Driver’s Manual and Ezra is poking him in the shoulder. I am thinking, Over one billion animals have just burned up in Australia, and there is a possibility we are about to bumble our way into another war in the Mideast. Anika is sitting quietly and Finley is doodling in his notebook. Other students are hugging and shouting about something that someone said yesterday and laughing uproariously.
I am thinking: What will come from me today and go into them? What part of what I am doing will be important? How much pressure can I bring to bear to make them see or know or feel new thoughts? What will be important to them today? I have to muster my energy to bring them to ideas and concepts which may or may not interest them in the least.
None of them are thinking about fires in Australia or drone strikes in Bagdad.
There are times in teaching when the whole project seems impossible. Too many distractions. Too many things to learn about and not enough time. We should watch the film, “Hidden Figures,” since Isabelle presented a project on it. I want to show them King’s entire speech from the March on Washington, but there is so much to unpack. The words “interposition” and “nullification” echo in my head and I do a quick calculation of how much energy and time it might take to explain those terms. There is a play the whole school is trying to write. Some of the kids need to be set up with Nordic ski equipment. I need to read and edit Oscar’s weekly notes, which he sent to me late last night, all 3,919 words he’s written about the week previous. There’s a field trip to Middlebury College on Friday where will be dissecting sheep hearts. Rose has told me there are five students who don’t want to touch the hearts. Part of me wants to raise hell about this. Leonardo Da Vinci dissected 40 human cadavers over the course of his life in order to understand human anatomy: why can’t these kids be excited to look at the hearts of sheep? We have lives that are only so long. We only have so many chances to understand what we are, where we came from. So by all means, and for the sake of your own life, take the scalpel in hand and start looking into the heart in front of you!
Before the field trip, I read them an essay by Brian Doyle called “Joyas Voladoras.” It’s a comparison of the hummingbird’s heart — which is the size of a pencil point — to that of the blue whale, which is bigger than a room. These two animal hearts are then compared to our own. But a single fact remains true for all of us, animals and humans: we all have an estimated two billion heartbeats allotted to us in a lifetime. Our hearts may beat slowly, Doyle writes, like the tortoise, and we can live to be 200 years old. Or our heart beats 10 times a second, like the heart of a hummingbird, and we can live for two years. We have a lifetime given to us that can be measured in heartbeats. We have 170 days, give or take, to make a memorable year in our school, to shape both intelligence and character.
I tell them about Hadley, a girl who attended our school whose dad, Bud, had a heart that failed. When he died, we planted a tree at the school in his memory. The spring after he died, Hadley came back to tell us about it. She’d graduated, but she wanted to come and sit around the big-room table again and talk about Bud with the whole school. Many of the kids in the room knew Hadley and her dad. Many did not. It didn’t matter, though. These matters of the heart were something everyone could feel and understand, and they all listened as Hadley laughed and cried. I read the class the poem by e.e. cummings inscribed on a plaque by the tree that we had planted for Bud: here is the deepest secret nobody knows/ (here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud/ and the sky of the sky of a tree called life.
With the news of fires and bombs raining down and children who commit suicide, I find my spirit sagging. When the noisy shouting of adolescents seems indecipherable, when they are wrapped up in the blissful ignorance and joy of being children, when the sky is steel gray and the sun has not shone for a fortnight, I try to remember that one of my central roles is to keep the blood moving in this little heart of a school. This goes alongside ushering them through long novels, correcting their stories, imparting bits of history, helping them understand what the U.S. Constitution is meant to do. I tell them about Wilma Rudolph. You can overcome any defect or disease. You can become the fastest in the world. I tell them they have two billion heartbeats to spend. Feel all that you can, and have a strong heart. I tell them about Frederick Douglass, whose biography I am reading, a few pages each night. Mobs showed up at his lectures. He was called the vilest names you can imagine. He was attacked and pelted with rotting food and run out of town. He gave speeches in empty rooms and to 3,000. He stood on the outskirts of town and preached in the darkness among a grove of trees. Keep talking, even when it seems not one other person in the world is listening.
Then I think, I do not have a right to give up. These kids, they do need to feel hopeful. They don’t yet know all of what is in the world. I have to give it to them in truth, honestly, but with hope. I remember the story about the Dutch pacifist, A.J. Muste, who stood in front of the White House in protest of the Vietnam War holding a single candle. “Do you really believe standing out here with one candle will change the world?” he was reportedly asked by a journalist. “Oh no,” Muste replied, “I don’t do it to change the world, I do it so the world won’t change me!”
I have felt myself being changed by the world outside of me these last few years. I have heard words and watched actions from our leaders which have made me feel hopeless, disheartened, enraged. I am learning that when I feel this way, the most useful thing I can do is direct my attention to the Good. Where is the Good that I can grasp onto? Who has done Good? Who keeps doing good? I say this, knowing that none of us has a single heartbeat to waste. Countee Cullen, a gay black man in the 1930s whose partner was a white man, sang his poems to his nation and was not afraid. Emily Davidson placed herself in front of the king’s horse. British suffragettes suffered broken teeth, vomiting, bleeding and choking when they were force-fed during hunger strikes. Frederick Douglass fought his brutal overseer until his overseer gave up.
On the days that drag, or on the days that drag us down, we have to look for glints of light where we can. If there is a flash of movement in the limbs, we must catch it while we can. Later in the morning, at the end of meeting, I ask who has a poem to read to the class.
“I do,” says Maggie. I had earlier given her a collection of poems that had been displayed on the subways of London and New York.
She opens the book to a marked page, then reads a short poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, who was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Say to them,
say to the down-keepers,
“even if you are not ready for day
it cannot always be night.”
You will be right.
For that is the hard home-run.
Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
Live in the along.
I keep my head down while I listen. As noise rises and friction of the day heats up, this may be what passes for a blessing. Live not for battles won. We have long hours and months ahead. My sphere of influence is at this table, in this room, with these souls, who are on the precipice between childhood and adulthood, just before they open their wings. I want them to love the truth that they can know and learn, that they must. I want them to learn to become desperate and impatient for what they don’t know, to be willing to be uncomfortable because comfort is not important. I can teach them about poetry or a prophet like Douglass. But more than that. I want them to want to know all the chambers of the heart. There is something to explore in that. It may end at two billion beats, but there is still so much. There is the Great Migration, and Robert Smalls, and Katherine Johnson, and Sally Hemmings. There is a flower in the hand of the slain warrior in Picasso’s “Guernica.” There is the snaking vein Michelangelo sculpted into David’s hand, the blood moving in him. That is the hand of a man who walked into battle unarmoured, with belief and fearlessness, his heart steady and sure. I am thinking of Bud’s tree outside shivering in the wind. We have our hands and our beliefs and the wind blows over us. We have our eyes looking forward. I want my heart all the way in it and I want to feel the terrible or beautiful meaning of what happens. This morning I want to feel changed and I don’t ever want to be changed.