It’s good to walk with someone who knows how to put one foot in front of the other and move forward. For modern educators, it’s a downright necessity. What with all the theories, strategies, lesson plans, faculty meetings, parent associations and student advocacy groups, one needs to find a companion who knows how to keep his or her feet on the ground.
Over the years, I’ve never found a better schoolyard companion than Henry David Thoreau. I know he died in 1862, but luckily he left his voice with us in the form of two wonderful books and his grand opus journals.
Henry’s journals were not published during his lifetime, and I suspect he might not appreciate the fact they are readily available today. He was a precise writer, fond of editing and revising his work, honing it to literary sharpness. Perhaps that is why his voice still speaks to me here in the 21st century. My life in the classroom is often a combination of problem solving, hand wringing, shoulder leaning and listening. But through it all, Henry remains my mentor, enduring wisdom popped from the head of Zeus and deposited on the doorway of my classroom. Here are two lessons.
In 1836, Henry was a newly minted Harvard graduate. He was also unemployed. One day, in desperation, he visited his famous friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lived in the same neighborhood. The philosopher asked, “What are you doing now?” That is the ultimate question for students and teachers alike, one that should be asked over and over.
Henry spent the rest of his life confronting that question and using it as a guide. That answer led him to explore self-reliance at Walden Pond, and to create the genre of American nature writing. It also led him to prison in opposition to slavery. Good questions can shape a life. Good questions can shape a nation. As a teacher, I also use Emerson’s question as a guide. What am I doing now? It connects me to my students and pushes our studies forward.
Can we learn how not to be bored? In his journal for June 27, 1840, Henry confronted boredom: “I am living this 27th of June, 1840, a dull cloudy day and no sun shining. The clink of the smith’s hammer sounds feebly over the roofs, and the wind is sighing gently, as if dreaming of cheerfuller days.” I never realized life could be dull in the 19th century, what with all the exploring and warring going on. Yet there it is.
This was the kind of day the history books gloss over. Students often suggest that this is a world without computers, DVDs or cellphones. What can you expect but boredom? Still, Henry found that boredom could be a useful part of life. He did this by taking up journal writing in a serious way and found adventure by reflecting on what seems to be an ordinary day.
I admire people who turn a perceived bad into a perceptive good, and that’s what he did. Notice the careful observation on that June entry. Henry turned it into something special by paying attention and then writing about it.
In the end, a good education requires patience, confidence and discipline. These are the qualities I expect from my students and myself. I know there will be days when I feel a little lost in a mountain of questions. I can answer some and explore others – with my students. And we will continue to walk with Henry through every school year and far beyond.