“Vacant faces.” –Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch—
Ah, the ever-popular, two-word fragment. So what are your thoughts when you read this one? Whom do you think it’s describing? Here are some options. Pick one:
- children who have lost a parent
- students in the classroom
- the faces of dead bodies
And now we play the “One of These Things is not Like the Other” game. Which is it, friends? The sad thing is that even though option 2 should stand out as being the positive option among the negative, ask most middle or high school students, and it’s most definitely not. And, yes, “vacant faces” is absolutely referencing students in the classroom:
Vacant faces. The classroom was hot and drowsy in the late afternoon, windows open, traffic noises floating up from West End Avenue.”
Theo Decker is in his English class (stab to my heart) reading Walt Whitman (another stab to my heart) when Tartt describes the faces of all the students as “vacant” (and I’ve keeled over and died). Sigh.
So I’m reading The Goldfinch right now, and it’s awesome. I’m about 200 pages in, and I’m fully invested. (I considered putting off writing this post because I wanted to just keep reading.) When I got to this classroom scene, though, I had to pause and do some reflecting.
Because I’m an English teacher.
I’m an English teacher who teaches students in a classroom.
I’m an English teacher who teaches students in the classroom on hot days (I live and teach in Florida) — and sometimes . . . Walt Whitman is involved.
Call me an idealist, but I don’t think the classroom has to be like Theo’s classroom. I mean, the classroom was described as drowsy. Who is going to learn in a drowsy classroom, let alone enjoy learning! No chance.
Poor Theo (and poor Theo for so many other reasons, and at this point I’m only on page 221 out of 771).
And poor students of those kinds of classrooms. On behalf of all drowsy teachers in all drowsy classrooms, I’m sorry.
I have a sign on the outside of my classroom door that says “Enter With Alacrity.” On the first day of school, my students know that it’s something I make sure I do before I cross over the threshold and into my room. I hope that the students can do it, but they can always count on me to. I can’t guarantee many things in life or in my classroom, but alacrity from me is one thing. I’ll be ready for my students, yes, but I’ll be cheerful, too.
There is no degree for this.
When I realized I wanted to be a teacher, I was already in the classroom. I had gotten a job (yay for a job because that meant being able to sign the contract to rent an apartment — more about that here) at a small private school because I had enough English credits to be able to teach. I certainly had no education degree. (In college, I certainly never even wanted to become a teacher.)
But when I was in the classroom, I became alive in a way I hadn’t felt before. I loved the energy and potential (and even the sarcasm) of teenagers. I loved their quick minds and short attention spans. I saw teaching as so much more than participial phrases and literary reduction worksheets. I may have been called a “teacher,” but I’d say that what I did was closer to comedian-therapist-actress-friend-singer-mime. It was a lot. And I enjoyed it! Teaching energized me (certainly more than my other job at the time — working part time at Pier One Imports and coming home smelling like ginger peach candles).
And here I am still in the classroom, 15 years later — still jumping around yelling things like Shakespeare just told his lady lover that her breath REEKS! Or wildly gesticulating to the preposition jingle. Or getting down on hands and knees to imitate Jack from Lord of the Flies when he puts his face next to the still-warm pig poop.
It is a wild ride in my classroom.
And I take pride in it. I challenge myself as a teacher to never have a boring lesson (split infinitive, LPETA*, and I LIKE IT BECAUSE I LIKE THE WAY IT SOUNDS AND SOUND COUNTS FOR SOMETHING IN WRITING SO THERE AND NOW I’VE WRITTEN A LITTLE RUN-ON RIGHT HERE INSIDE THE PARENTHESES WITHOUT EVEN USING ANY COMMAS). Even if I’m teaching independent and subordinate clauses (stifle your yawns here, people), I will somehow find a way to jump around the room or sing or wildly gesticulate — or get the students to. And while I do take pride in my energy in the classroom among other things, I will never reach that point when I would say “That’s it — there is absolutely nothing I could do better this school year!” (See my post about always being better here. And more about my journey and epiphanies about teaching here.)
So when I read about poor Theo’s drowsy, Whitman-infused classroom, I say to teachers everywhere: FIGHT! Classrooms don’t have to be like that. We can be excited about Whitman (that should be easy), but we can be excited about transitive verbs, too. Or at the very minimum, we can have energy.
And if you can’t, I have some simple advice for you — something you can do right now:
FIND ANOTHER PROFESSION.
I have enough respect for the students to say that. They deserve our best. And if you are a human reading this, you know that teachers are so much more than teachers. I’m reminded of the Taylor Mali poem “What Teachers Make.” It’s a good one, and I’d highly suggest you interrupt your reading of my post to watch him perform it.
Did you watch it yet? Just do it.
(Do it now.)
Now that you are feeling inspired or maybe convicted, I’d like to revisit The Goldfinch. Sixty pages after the doldrums-classroom scene, Theo is with his buddy Hobie learning the differences between quality, one-of-a-kind furniture and machine-produced reproductions:
[Hobie] was a good teacher and very soon, by walking me through the process of examination and comparison, he’d taught me how to identify a reproduction: by wear that was too even (antiques were always worn asymmetrically); by edges that were machine-cut instead of hand-planed (a sensitive fingertip could feel a machine edge, even in poor light); but more than that by a flat, dead quality of wood, lacking a certain glow: the magic that came from centuries of being touched and used and passed through human hands.”
And while I could write another 1000 words about this beautiful beast of a sentence, I’ll simply leave it at this: Hobie isn’t a teacher in the classroom. He certainly doesn’t have a degree in education. (Side-note here: Please don’t think that I am discrediting teachers who happen to have education degrees. More power to you! But I believe that we are much more than what a diploma says about us.) For Theo, Hobie is the best teacher. The richness of this one sentence is what teaching can be. It’s the kind of experience that’s difficult to fit into one sentence (and certainly not one without some parenthetical elaborations); it’s an experience that feels full but in a satisfying way; it’s an experience that buzzes with energy — all the way to the end.
So if you’re still with me in this (longish) post (it’s nothing compared to the 771 tome that is The Goldfinch), hear me when I say that in whatever you do — whether it’s teaching or blogging or parenting or sitting in a classroom or fill-in-the-blanking-in-whatever-specific-profession-you’re-in — be fully invested. Find the excitement in it. Keep it cool.
And if you teach Whitman? For the love, be excited about it.
*LPETA: Literary Prude English Teachers of America