So writing about Annie Dillard last week, sent me back to her book The Writing Life. It also forced me to reconsider how I was living each day, each hour. I’m struck by how much time I spend putting out fires in the classroom, and I recall a moment from this past semester that has me reconsidering how I teach.
It’s the middle of my second block class. The January winds are tearing at the window screen, a whispering howl sneaking in. Inside, my tenth grade World Literature students are bustling around the room, finishing their work on a semester’s long research project that they will be sharing with their fellow students, staff, and family members at a cultures fair later in the week. At the moment, I have a swarm of students surrounding my desk at the front of the room. One needs a fundraising permission form signed, another wants to double check on the proper citation rules to follow for an interview, three are asking for permission to go to the art room, and another needs help finding up-to-date research on the current status of the African Union’s troops in Darfur; the rest are hovering over stacks of art supplies and folders of research. I’m simultaneously reaching for my pass book, jotting down a website address, and attempting to find my lost cup of now cold coffee among the clutter. From out of the chaos comes a small voice, “Geez, Ms. Ward, it’s amazing how you keep track of all the stuff going on.” It stops me in my tracks.
I’m involved in a million different things at once, but not engaged with any single one, caught up in what comes next, not thinking about the moment in front of me. It is unfortunate that I find myself in many of these moments as a teacher – putting out one fire while trying to light another in a student. I get drawn into, enveloped by grading, disciplinary reports, departmental meetings, parent phone calls that still need to be made. All teachers do. It’s in moments like these that I need to be reminded by Annie Dillard to think of how I am spending this hour. It is this moment, this hour that makes me, not how much I plan ahead or how many tasks I can complete in a day. It was in a moment like this that I printed out the Annie Dillard quote.
Crumpled and coffee stained, the quote clings steadfast to the top of my computer monitor, centered above the screen. I found it recently while clearing away the books and random notes scribbled on scraps that used to call my desk home. I had printed it to serve as a mantra, a reminder, but it had been shuffled into the daily clutter. The quote has since re-established its presence, its place of prominence. “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” Annie Dillard, whose writing I first encountered in an undergraduate literature course, is a writer who calls us, who calls me, to engage fully in the world. And this past week, she has been calling to me quite a bit.
You’d think I’d need to be beat on the head for her message to sink in. =)