The Ecstasy of Teaching

There are rare times when the joy and excitement of teaching swells to ecstasy.  When the world of tangibles mutes and fades into the background for a short time, giving way to a world of ideas, and, as in a dream, new rules seem to apply.  It is a confounding experience and difficult to describe.  I found myself today standing outside my classroom, on the steps in the sun, just catching my breath and trying to maintain my composure, and wondering what just happened.

In these glowing moments after things have gone so well in class, the world looks different.  Literally.  I know it is all about perception, but that doesn’t dim the experience of it.  It is as if the world sparkles, like I am seeing it for the first time.  Like things lack names.  New.  Unidentifiable in reference to anything that came before.  Like an infant’s gaze.  I have walked out of my classroom on only a handful of occasions in my 13 years of teaching and wondered, “What has changed in the world?  Why does it look so different?”  Or is it me?

This morning I was standing outside my classroom, sort of panting, looking again at a sparkling world for the first time.  I had just contrived a short, reflective writing assignment as an personal escape plan.  In order to give myself the chance to breathe, I had breathlessly recapped some of the intellectual and emotional territory we had just traversed and asked my students to write down what they remember of the 45-minute discussion we had just experienced together.  It was a fine thing for a teacher to ask of students, certainly pedagogically supportable, but it was an escape for me, nonetheless.  I had reached for the ripcord and deployed the parachute.

I wondered if my students knew, in some way, that I had bailed out.  Had the moment become awkward in class?  Did they wonder?  Did they ask themselves, “What’s up with him?  Why is he so into it?”  I trusted that they did not.  I trusted that they had by now come to expect my intensity around ideas.  But you can’t ever be sure – and I heard myself saying, “Pull it together.  Breathe.  Take it down.  You have to go back in there and wrap things up for next class.”

This class I teach is called Why War? and I am happy to tell you what we talked about, how it went, all the details – I know you are wondering.  But for now that isn’t my point.  What we talked about is almost irrelevant.  I am trying to write about why I teach (in fact, I have been trying for years), about moments of connection with ideas in the company of young people striving to develop their powers.  Moments of transcendence when being in the presence of grace and great things shines a light on you that you know you can’t endure but you want never to go out.

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