Teacher Talk: Looking for grace on the Mississippi

Posted: Friday, April 02, 2004

Through Huck Finn's eyes, my class of juniors and I have just witnessed the senseless violence of the Grangerford-Sheperdson feud, and now we are following Huck back to the raft, to Jim, to the Mississippi River.

"We said there warn't no home like a raft, after all," Huck tells us. "Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft."

I glance up from my reading. One of the students is clicking her pen incessantly. Another is doodling large circles and figure eights onto his notebook. A few appear to be sleeping. None of them seem engaged. I change tactics.

"Let's talk about the Mississippi River. What does it represent for Huck?"

Silence.

The girl clicking her pen increases the clicking. The student doodling begins drawing a river. At least he is listening.

"Think about the contrast between what happens on the river and on the land. What's Twain trying to show us here?"

Silence.

I briefly wonder if they have all gone deaf.

Outside, January rain drizzles onto dirty January snow.

"Uh, Ms. Brooks?"

"Yes?" I wince, prepared for the off-topic question about homework, about borrowing a pencil.

"This is like a quote I heard somewhere. This guy said that we should make our lives simpler, live in nature, stop worrying about what the world tells us to do."

I gape. "Yes. . .you heard that here, last week. That was Thoreau who said that."

"Yeah, well, that's kinda like Huck."

His classmates nod. The pen-clicking girl stops clicking and bends her head to re-read the passage.

Another student raises her hand. "So the river is like freedom from what the world tells you to do, right?" And suddenly, the whole class wakes up as if they have been doused in cold river water. They do not care about a scrubby 19th century boy floating down a river they have never seen. But a boy trying to find his own way in the world makes sense to them.

As a class, we talk about the river and about Huck and Jim, and when it is time to read out loud again, even the doodling student leaves the Transcendentalist trees he has been drawing to follow along.

This moment is what Richard L. Graves, in his essay "Grace, in Pedagogy", would call a moment of grace. The sudden moment in which a student makes a connection between authors or recognizes a poem's relevance or writes a beautiful line in an essay - these in-breakings of grace fuel and rejuvenate English teachers.

I have learned nothing more important in my MAT year. But my MAT program has included no class entitled "How to Make Moments of Grace Happen." A lesson brimming with activities and opportunities for connection may draw only blank stares, while a long, seemingly boring essay may inspire heated debate. One poem may fail to elicit a response, while another poem may move some students to tears. Grace breaks unexpectedly into a classroom. Teachers can only create a place where it can happen, and then hope.

I have spent the past eight months learning how to create that place. But some nights, when I stare across my dinner plate at a towering stack of essays that need grading, I feel weary. Some days, when every strategy I use seems to fail, when a carefully crafted lesson plan crashes, I start doubting. And some days, when the newspapers report budget cuts in education and narrow job markets for teachers, I almost decide that teaching is not for me.

But then grace breaks in. In early December, as my juniors labored to write imitations of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," a student murmured, "Look!" We all followed her gaze out the window. Clouds of snow gusted off the edge of Mount Roberts, and the rising sun had painted the clouds a brilliant pink and orange. We witnessed the sun's artistry. Reverent. Silent. And then, as the color faded and the sun edged above the horizon, the students returned to their imitations of the man who wrote joyfully:

"I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."

The poetry written in those moments after the sunrise was eloquent and deeply reflective. Full of grace. Full of why I am becoming a teacher, and of why I will remain one.

• Sarah J. H. Brooks is a Masters of Arts in teaching candidate at the University of Alaska Southeast and a student teacher in the classes of Casady Herding and Ali McKenna at Juneau-Douglas High School.



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