The smallest things — in life and in the classroom


Perhaps it is getting older, or perhaps it is that I require order out of the chaos of the world around me, but lately I have noticed that my body and my emotions respond to a the daily ritual I have followed for years. I think I have always been a person who appreciates the rhythm and sequence of daily life, yet now this appreciation has become even more apparent to me.

After being interviewed on a radio show by people who were hostile to my writing and speaking on race and equity, and listening for two hours to men and women belittling my work, I found myself unmoored, in a bewildering limbo. I am used to criticism and even anger at what I say. I am used to people who are sure they are right and I am in the wrong, stand up in public and challenge my work. This was different. This felt like an invasion of my home. It felt like an intensely personal and intimate attack on my beliefs. For five days I could not shake a disproportionate gloom that pervaded my mood. Even my son noticed my mood on our visit to Chicago immediately after the interview. It must have reminded him of a time when I was deeply depressed. By the time we got back from Chicago I wondered about seeing someone, wondered if I was descending into that state where sorrow becomes a country and you do not have a way out.

The first morning home I went for a walk along the river with my husband, Maury. For more than twenty years it has been the first part of our day, whether at six or eight or nine. We get up from bed, change into warm clothes in the winter and head out for the river a few blocks from where we live. We walk for 30-40 minutes and return home to coffee and the paper, showers and work. It was not until that walk that I felt the disequilibrium in my thinking ease. It was not until my body followed those familiar paths and stoplights, playground and habitual acquaintances with their dogs we see each day, that I felt myself to be literally grounded again.

This experience has led me to think about the importance of ritual in the lives of those we love and teach and spend time with. There is a power in providing rituals for others, for constructing environments where challenging and provocative work is done. In education the best classrooms are places where teachers, almost unknowingly, provide the structure students need to venture into discussion and reaction, or creation and improvisation. These teachers may have music playing in their room before school starts. They may have a question on the board students are expected to try and puzzle out before the hour starts. They may have a set way the week will go, with a skill review on one day, a new concept on another. On the board will be the sequence of events for each day, beginning with a “wuzzle” to ponder or a math problem to figure out, and moving from there.

When I taught, I noticed that students were somewhat perturbed if I forgot to put the poem for the week up on Monday or neglected to find a quote for the day on Wednesday. Within the hour, which was always concluded with a gathering together of students and a final comment and hope for what we would accomplish the next day, the class could go from small group to silent individual reading time, from large discussion to single voices reciting for the rest of us. We may be talking about the power of words to hurt or heal; we might be reading quietly from a difficult novel. We might have a debate or a spoken word performance or an opera aria sung to us by the parent of a student. We could be preparing for a test on Shakespeare’s sonnet, or Walt Whitman or Nikki Finney or all of those together and how they intersect.

Surrounding all this variety, was a similarity that ritual brings. And make no mistake about it, this is not the same as the militarized and regimented classroom that some who believe students, especially students who are poor, need. It is not as a prelude to a “drill and kill” classroom experience. Ritual is a more universal quality, one that is elusive and yet we know when we feel it and it is right for us. Ritual, I am more and more convinced, is what keeps us sane in a trying time. I believe we all create the simplest patterns for our lives.

 I find that it is a natural propensity, to want some sameness, some experience that feels like home to our bodies as well as our minds. And the best of these patterns feels organic, seems to fit seamlessly into the place and constrictions of our places of work or our living situations. For some that walk by the river might be in the evening. For others a quiet end to the day may be essential and so fifteen minutes before sleep, time is set aside. For students who live in homes that seem chaotic, whether in the city or suburbs, or because of double shifts their parents hold to put food on the table, or a traveling schedule that means they don’t’ know when they will see their father or mother each month, the smallest moments may create a pattern of stability. Sundays may be reserved for the family, mornings may be the time to connect. Notes may be left on the counter, not just with instructions but with ideas for the afternoon, the next day.

We need not remain restricted by such rituals either. Yet understanding the comfort such patterns bring, the heartbeat that becomes regular, the mood that lightens when we go for that walk, sing in a choir, is to pay attention to. And when we miss our home, when our lives take us into places and events that do not allow for our usual routine, perhaps we can celebrate this by knowing we can find a rhythm in the moments of our lives no matter where we are. We can go to Nepal and find that wordless quiet each dawn, we can live in New York and walk the Highline and feel it connect to our body the way a walk on a mountain road used to do.

In a time of newness, in the lightening speed of changes, ritual activities may be what we give ourselves that allows us to be in the world most fully, most whole heartedly.