For the upcoming work Teaching From The Heart: Poetry That Speaks To the Courage To Teach, edited by Megan Scribner and Sam Intrator, I wrote about this poem by Galway Kinnell. The poem is central to my work as a teacher and a coach, and to several important turning points in my life. A portion of this reflection will appear in Teaching From the Heart, due out later this year.
At a fortunate point in my life, I was trained by Parker Palmer, a spiritual teacher and moral philosopher of great proportions. During this particular training, we wrote and shared a “where I’m from” poem, and then read them to each other in pairs. Embarrassingly, I got paired with Parker. My “where I’m from” poem was unlovely, full of ordinary ugliness: about the hollow core doors and wall-to-wall carpeting of the home where I was born; of the children of immigrant farm workers who were outcast, silenced and marginalized in the schools where I grew up; of my longing for escape from a town where strip malls and cheap development housing were eating up beautiful farmland. Parker sat listening to me–I hardly knew him then–with calm, unanxious attention, with trained spiritual attention, seeing me, taking me in, not judging me but listening with present, quiet kindness, witnessing and allowing a budding self blessing in me–hand on my forehead all the way down to the spiritual curl of my tail. At the time, the moment seemed insignificant, an exercise quickly passed over. And yet as I look back on it, it was the birth of a new chapter of my life, a muted beginning of compassion for myself and my own strained and misfitting early life. I began to discover my own sense of sureness beneath the unsureness, of the power of showing up as myself, however flawed, unglamourous and hollow-core-doored I might be.
As a teacher, I often think my work is fundamentally about reteaching a thing its lovliness. My students enter my classroom filled with self-doubt, with harsh self-biographies and self-evaluations, filled with stories about unworthiness and not-enoughness for which they often compensate with cockiness and overconfidence. They have been told, in an enormous number of ways, that they aren’t good enough, aren’t smart enough–or conversely, that winning the game of school is all that matters–and underneath they’ve become cynical and self-doubting. As teachers we sometimes have glimpses of the greatness that lies beneath this accreted shell, the budding flower that lies below the hard spiny spikiness. In some teaching moments–when we’re present and quiet and settled in ourselves–we are given the gift of bearing witness to our students as they flower from within, as they self-bless, as they quicken with interest in themselves. We are given the gift of seeing our students, of observing in them something they don’t see in themselves. It is our work to bear witness to that: to help them catch glimpses of themselves and their own great promise. So when I sit with a group of students and that magical thing begins to happen, that sometimes seems to me the most central miracle of all: when we become interested in ourselves in new ways, and see our great completeness and simultaneous rooting to the ground–I’m reminded of this poem. I’m reminded of that moment with Parker. For me that’s come to be at the center of my work, the sense that we all need someone to bear witness to us, to listen with quiet spiritual presence, or to cheer us on, to help us remember, snout to tail down our thick length, our emergent and eternal lovliness.