I volunteered for an event being held on campus today and, as I had been warned it might be quite dull, I took a book with me, Jorge Luis Borges' Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. I find reading Borges to be a lot like working out after a period of not doing so: it takes time to limber up and for the first few pages or stories, like the first few minutes of a run, I struggle to find the rhythm that I'm used to. After awhile, though, I'm able to find my rhythm and start moving pretty solidly through the pages (usually just in time for Borges to turn my mind inside out). After the usual period of struggle today, I found myself enjoying the bizarre worlds Borges conjures up seemingly out of the leftover scraps of other stories. I spent most of the day reading through the book, when I wasn't directing high school and elementary school students to the classroom they needed to find.
One passage in “The Circular Ruins” made me sit up and take notice, and I haven't been able to get it out of my mind since. During the lunch break, I'd sat with a friend and some visiting high school teachers as we ate the pretty terrible pizza that was on offer. The high school teachers asked us about our own teaching and wondered if we might be able to recommend some books, stories, or poems that we wish all high school students had read before they entered out class and to suggest the most important writing skills students could bring with them to university. Needless to say, this was a fun discussion. What made it so pleasant was that the high school teachers treated my friend and I like real teachers. We were not just grad students teaching the classes that tenured faculty couldn't be bothered with, nor were we some kind of bumbling apprentice who would someday figure this teaching thing out. The high school teachers we sat with regarded my friend and I as peers and colleagues, people who could share knowledge about the business of teaching and who had expertise to impart w/r/t to the classroom and the curriculum. After returning to my post and picking up Borges, I came across a description of teaching that damn near nails what I think is so magical about the encounters you can have in the classroom:
The stranger dreamt that he was in the center of a circular amphitheater which in some way was the burned temple: clouds of silent students filled the gradins, the faces of the last ones hung many centuries away and at a cosmic height, but were entirely clear and precise. The man was lecturing to them on anatomy, cosmography, magic; the countenances listened with eagerness and strove to respond with understanding, as if they divined the importance of the examination which would redeem one of them from his state of vain appearance and interpolate him into the world of reality. The man, both in dreams and awake, considered his phantoms' replies, was not deceived by impostors, divined a growing intelligence in certain perplexities. He sought a soul which would merit participation in the universe.
Cosmography and magic (and any number of other subjects) are all part of what comes out of a literature class at its best, I think. I know there are classes that I've taken where I've come home so charged with ideas, so full of newness, so disturbed, that it's been impossible to stop thinking and has taken me hours to settle down enough to do any work or to go to sleep. In the proper setting, new worlds are birthed, new horizons of understanding glimpsed, new perspectives found, new arguments raised, and new questions asked. This event is one of the reasons I find teaching freshmen to be exhilarating: that moment when suddenly nothing is the same for them anymore, when they've come further than they ever have before and cannot help but think new thoughts and entertain new opinions. It doesn't happen with every student, unfortunately, but I see it happen with enough of them to keep me engaged and interested. I want to help them find those souls that merit participation in a universe that is more difficult to live in than the one they live in now because I think life in that universe is richer than the one they live in now and they deserve to live in a richer universe (provided they work to get there).
At the same time, though, I understand why many of them get frustrated and choose not to head for this new universe. Everything is more complex there: no one will make their decisions for them anymore, no one will tell them how to think or what opinion to hold. Even the things they thought they knew how to do become defamiliarized. Reading can make things more confusing; writing can lead to mazes of uncertainties and doubts. Of course, there are positives to go along with this: reading can open whole new areas of existence and writing can offer the thrill of working right at the very limit of one's knowledge. I know it's those two sensations I'm always looking for and trying to introduce my students to. I love that sense that every word I put down is a step into darkness, into a place I've never been and that I'm creating as I write, or that every page I turn somehow makes the world, brighter, louder, more vibrant, more complex, more ambiguous, and more mysterious.
I felt something was missing from my teaching over the last half of this past semester. Somehow, I tried too hard or pushed in the wrong directions or something, but the experience was less “cosmic” and more tedious, I think. The promise of the circular amphitheater in which the stranger lectures was just not there. Borges' character ultimately abandons his dream of the classroom. However, I'm not ready to abandon the parts of his dream that I share just yet. He considers it a failure, a hallucination that will fail to bring about a new soul he can bring into existence. I don't know that I disagree entirely; I do think, though, that it helps to create the dreams that can do it, if nothing else. It's been nice this past month to have a break from teaching, but I'm starting to get excited again for fall and to return to the classroom. I'll be teaching at 8:00 am on MWF, so I will be the first teacher my students have in their university careers. This is the first time I've had this opportunity, and I can't wait. Maybe I'll read them that Borges passage on the first day and tell them how much we have to look forward to together.