February 11, 2018

Prompt: What You Missed In School

All of us missed some things when we were in school. Maybe you are still in school. From kindergarten through graduate school, we all have been absent in body and mind sometimes, and other times you were there in body but not in mind.

When I searched on "what you missed in school," I got more than 40,000 hits, so we must have missed a lot of stuff.

There are two poems I like that deal with this topic. One is "What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade" by Brad Aaron Modlin (from Everyone at This Party Has Two Names).

Modlin's poem begins:
Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,
how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
questions on how not to feel lost in the dark...
and concludes with
And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation
look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,
and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person
add up to something.​
Modlin touches on a number of things that may not be listed in any curriculum, but are the kinds of things I found myself dealing with in my teaching days. Of course, teaching fourth grade or kindergarten is very different from teaching high school or college. And yet, school is a place where we learn many things not in the books or lesson plans.

When you are done with your schooling, you often realize that there were things you were taught, but that you never learned, and there were things you just missed for some reason or another.

The Modlin poem is a good companion to another popular-with-teachers poem "Did I Miss Anything?" by Tom Wayman which I discovered when I was teaching middle school. (It is in his Selected Poems and also appears in the anthology edited by Billy Collins when he was our Poet Laureate for teachers to use, Poetry 180)

I used Wayman's poem several times for back-to-school nights with parents. There were some puzzled looks from the parents of kids who also frequently had puzzled looks in class. But most kids and parents get the point.

Wayman's poem is a series of answers to the title question that alternate between "nothing" and "everything." He starts by answering:
Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours
and he concludes with a big Everything:
Everything. Contained in this classroom
is a microcosm of human experience
assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
This is not the only place such an opportunity has been
but it was one place
And you weren’t here

For our prompt this month, the topic is what you missed in school.  Was it something important? Was it all irrelevant? Do you even know what it is that you missed? Did you know it at the time, or have you realized it many years later?



February 2, 2018

Thoughts on Winter

Although Henry David Thoreau wrote little poetry, I find his essays and journal to be inspirational. He advised in his journal that we should “Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.”

I am a fan of winter walks and I especially like going out after a snowfall. The woods are whitewashed clean, and the snow muffles sounds. I like to follow the tracks of animals who have walked there before me that day.

Adam Gopnik's book Winter: Five Windows on the Season  is a meditation on the season via artists, poets, composers, writers, explorers, scientists, and thinkers, who have created our modern idea of winter. It goes to unlikely places, such as thinking about how snow science leads to existential questions of God and our place in the world.

Do I love the winter season? No, it is my least favorite season. (Autumn is my favorite.) I often say that i want to retire to a place without winter, or at least with a much milder winter than my New Jersey ones. But I suspect i would miss winter after a time.

The Brain Pickings blog had a post about Thoreau finding inner warmth in this cold season, but here is a section from his journal that isn't about going for a walk in the snowy woods.
The wind has gently murmured through the blinds, or puffed with feathery softness against the windows, and occasionally sighed like a summer zephyr lifting the leaves along, the livelong night. The meadow-mouse has slept in his snug gallery in the sod, the owl has sat in a hollow tree in the depth of the swamp, the rabbit, the squirrel, and the fox have all been housed. The watch-dog has lain quiet on the hearth, and the cattle have stood silent in their stalls. The earth itself has slept, as it were its first, not its last sleep, save when some street-sign or wood-house door has faintly creaked upon its hinge, cheering forlorn nature at her midnight work, — the only sound awake twixt Venus and Mars, — advertising us of a remote inward warmth, a divine cheer and fellowship, where gods are met together, but where it is very bleak for men to stand. But while the earth has slumbered, all the air has been alive with feathery flakes descending, as if some northern Ceres reigned, showering her silvery grain over all the fields.
I identify with Thoreau's suggestion to walk in winter, but I also identify with curling up under a blanket inside and just observing the winter outside.

Here is Hank expanding on that winter walk:
There is nothing so sanative, so poetic, as a walk in the woods and fields even now, when I meet none abroad for pleasure. In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it, — dining with the Governor or a member of Congress!! But alone in distant woods or fields, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful.

Poets have had much to say about winter. Mr. Shakespeare wrote:

Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
   Thou art not so unkind
      As man’s ingratitude;
   Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
      Although thy breath be rude. 

I feel more akin to the "Winter Trees" of William Carlos Williams and like them in this cold month I am protecting my buds from the season and sleepily waiting for spring.

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.