I took my biology students out for a walk in the small woods behind the college. As in most things, their attitudes ran the gamut from keen interest (one student carried the body of a dead and mouse-gnawed snake along with her for the duration, and others plunged into the partly frozen swamps exclaiming over skunk cabbage), to good natured uninterest, to slack-jawed boredom or hostility. One student spent ten minutes gagging and retching after we picked apart coyote scat with a stick. Another mentioned Harry Potter and asked if we’d all seen the movies. “They’re better than the books,” he said, “I don’t like to read, so I haven’t actually read them.”
Bring me the hemlock. Though alas, I lack sufficient influence to corrupt the youth.
It’s important, as a teacher, not to attach one’s self-worth to either enthusiasm or its lack in one’s students. I can demonstrate my own curiosity, my own enthusiasm, but mostly what this creates is an environment where students with some nascent bit of their own curiosity may freely express it. This has great value. But I would be profoundly naive to believe it’s present in all my students. I am not naive, but I continue to be bewildered. Even thoughtful, hardworking students will tell me, “Sorry, science just isn’t my thing. I can’t get into this nature stuff.” I will never understand this completely. These students have gotten siloed, thinking people must have one interest, one area of expertise. I have always had quite the opposite problem; interested in nearly everything, I have no prospects of mastery in any. Veering from an undergraduate degree in literature, to a graduate degree in veterinary medicine, and now teaching everything from botany to birds, I can never seem to settle. Nor, truthfully, do I wish to. The stack of books by my bed includes: a philosopher’s take on Darwinian theory; the collected poems of Seamus Heaney; two novels of a literary bent; Joseph Brodsky’s selected essays.
I took my two sons for a walk on the beach. The upper reaches are all sand, but at the lowest tides, rock ledges rise and tide pools fill the declivities between. In a pelting, sideways rain, we prowled these places that my younger son calls “the animal fields.” Bands of jagged barnacles meet lower bands of blue mussels shingling the rocks. Seals with pale velveteen pelts loll across a fast current from us. Gulls fly straight up, rear backward in midair, let fall mollusks onto the rocks and drop back down to find and gulp their mucoid contents.
Walking back to the car along the seawall, there is human trash strewn along the higher wrack line. My younger son looks down at it and asks, “Why do some people make a mess in nature? Why don’t they care about the animals?” “I guess because they never learned about it and never went out in it, and so they don’t love it,” I answered him. “Mom?” he asked, “Do students in your class go out and be bad to nature?”
Why he associates my students in particular with a lack of commitment to the wilds is not clear to me. I must have said something to make him construe things this way, but I suppose he’s right about at least some of them. What makes one person feel such affinities while others fail to? In no small part, it’s exposure and upbringing of course, but within that, there’s something else too. The differences between my sons drives this home for me. My elder son is equally at ease outside. He loves backpacking and hiking and fishing, but there’s a measure of detachment in him that I find occasionally unsettling. His young brother is tender-hearted, crying easily at the distress of living creatures whether in life or in a book. I would credit his age, only his older brother was never that way.
It’s hard to value every aspect of a child equally. The parts of myself, and the things that I love that I see mirrored in my children are easiest to love. The parts that are foreign are harder. Reading Jamaica Kincaid’s novel See Now Then, I ran across this passage,
[...] and then my mother became angry at me because I did not love her in return and then she became even more angry that I did not love her at all because I would not become her, I had an idea that I should become myself; it made her angry that I should have a self, a separate being that could never be known to her; she taught me to read and she was very pleased at how naturally I took to it, for she thought of reading as a climate and not everyone adapts to it [.]
and found parts of that unsettlingly true, that we go into parenting thinking we’re open to whatever this child might be, and that we will love him for who exactly he is. But it turns out, we don’t love all the parts equally, though sometimes it’s the parts least like, but sometimes the parts most like us that give trouble. In other relationships, relationships of choice, at any rate, we seek out shared interests and enthusiasms. A child might share none. Might inherit none of our loves and only our anxieties, a tendency toward depression, introversion, difficulty making eye contact or light conversation. When these are on display, and there is little of a common ground of interests, the gulf can open wide. The father in Kincaid’s novel, a musician, has a sports fanatic son:
Mr. Sweet did loathe all that the boy enjoyed and would never, ever take him to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachsuetts, but he would have taken him to the home of Dmitri Shostakovich if it was in Springfield, Massachusetts and he wanted that boy, the young Heracles, dead and he wanted another boy, who could sit still in the movie theater watching a cartoon, and not need Adderall or any kind of stimulant that made you still , to take his place.
Hyperbole, this not-quite-homicidal antipathy, of course, but still.
There are students I will never reach. Bored students, irritable students, irreparably damaged students (at least, as far as my poor repair skills go). There are some who don’t really need me. They follow their own fixed star and march along at a steady pace, committed either to education for its own sake, or to what it can gain them in life station. There is a middle population for whom I may do some good. Even a great deal of good. Day to day, there is exasperation, frustration, despair at the seeming pointlessness some days, a fantasy of becoming a hermit. Many days like that strung together can make a person highly susceptible to a small amount of excitement or interest in a student. A small spark that might be carefully shepherded into flame, if not fanned too vigorously or called too much into attention at the start. I keep cards and notes students have written to me, about the changes I’ve wrought in them and in their lives. The notes are precious to me, but I try to remember my real role. I am wholly responsible for neither my failing students nor my glowing successes. I can be an aid to the willing. I try not to be too susceptible to flattery.
Why teach, or parent, or write long essays on a blog with a small readership? Many good and noble reasons. But also for the same reason Heaney gave for looking into wells as a kid, and for writing poetry as a man:
Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.
Gaze into the well, but recall its hazards.