Monday, September 24, 2007

Gazing Into Odin's Eyes

It is truly amazing how little I can remember the feeling of this exhaustion when I am not teaching... that I can't anticipate how little of me there is at the end of a day or week in the classroom.

I keep thinking I'll be able to do things: visit a friend, write a blog post, read a serious book... and I keep being surprised when, as happened again this past weekend, Saturday rolls around and I just fall down.

Sorry. This isn't meant to be a teaching blog. But teaching is looming so large in my poor little psyche these days that there's little room for anything else.

But however firm the wall between church and state within my little classroom, religion follows me wherever I go, and my experiences as a teacher and as a soul are definitely affecting one another.

For one thing, there are the conversations with S.

I'm mentoring a Fulbright exchange teacher from India, as I mentioned earlier. It's a terrific experience overall--though where he comes up with his energy, I have no notion! We are fortunate in that, unlike most mentors and mentees (is that even a word?) we have enough time together--we both live in the same small city, and commute together to our small regional high school. A half hour in the car each morning and evening is dedicated to talking about whatever small or large cultural or educational questions might be coming up for him... everything from how to weight quizzes to the role of special education in American Schools. He's an extraordinary, curious, adventurous spirit, and I'm enjoying the connection a lot.

It also is an experience that I find challenging in a few unexpected ways. S. is, you see, not a Hindu, as might be guessed, nor even a Muslim, but rather a serious and dedicated Indian Christian. And among our cultural conversations have been a few on the subject of religion. He has been a bit surprised to find that the U.S. is not a Christian nation, for instance. And though he is pretty open minded when it comes to religious pluralism in this country, there are a few concepts that awkwardly enough, don't translate.

He'd never heard of Quakers. That I explained at least roughly, in terms that made at least intellectual sense... though giving the thumbnail sketch of Quaker history to someone who had never heard of a Puritan took some thought.

The whole question of Christian and non-Christian Quakers, which feels so central to my integrity if I discuss my religion, is almost impossible.

S. has never heard of "Wicca" or "Paganism"--at least in the sense of a modern religious movement. I might as well say the words "Froodle" or "Pipkin" to explain my personal spiritual life. He doesn't have any of the same cultural stereotypes, either--one teacher, who knows I'm Wiccan, made a joke in front of him about whether or not we share a broom for the rides to and from school rather than a car. The witch riding on broomstick motif is just not a part of his cultural background. I had to translate the joke later, and there's no doubt in my mind he had no idea why Jeff thought he was being funny, or what either brooms or witches have to do with anything about me.

Where to begin? Well, not with the stereotypes, thanks! Since I'm not a broom-flyer, it doesn't seem appropriate.

Well, but if I feel the need to clarify my position in our discussions, why not speak in terms of the polytheism of the Hindu world, with which S. is familiar?

See, he's familiar, but not in a nice, comfy, P.C. North American way. To S., Hindus are the benighted and superstitious majority he needs--through his church, at least, if not personally--to evangelize to. He has made it very clear that Hinduism is, to his mind, simply a mountain of foolish superstition that will vanish like magic when people are exposed to the infinitely superior Gospels.

Now, S. is a gentleman and a kind man. I'm not in the least afraid of becoming the target for any bigotry or intolerance. But I'm his host, his mentor... and I really don't want to make him embarrassed. I do want to let him know that, well, some of us polytheistic heathen types receive a fair amount of comfort and strength from our gods--whom we do not consider to be superstitions any more than he does Jesus, thanks very much. But how can I speak for Hindus, when all of my experience is book learning from half a world away? And how can I set him straight without causing him mortifying embarrassment?

Laugh if you like, but I have not yet found a way to make myself clear, in the small windows of time when religious topics have coincided with an appropriate moment on a drive. (Just pulling into the school parking lot = not an appropriate moment.)

I don't mind if our world views are very different. But, well, let's just say that I find "passing" for monotheist, particularly in a context of a relationship where some pretty negative things have been said about polytheists, acutely awkward.

S. was teaching Beowulf last week. Perhaps that accounts for the appearance of Grendel's mother in the dream I had last Friday.

I was in the midst of a group of some kind of unearthly Others. Fair Folk, Wild Hunt, spirits of some sort... and it was a context that clearly involved--as do contacts with the Good Neighbors--the need to be careful of cultural signals and etiquette that might have unexpected consequences.

I had a guide with me--a young man, of medium height, with dark black hair and fair skin, who was talking me through how to behave in a manner that was at once polite and safe in that company. We had all just arrived at some woodland retreat, a set of buildings clustered in a clearing in the forest. It was the end of the day, and shadows were falling fast.

On a kind of bridge between two buildings, tied up in straps from head to foot, lay the naked figure of... Grendel's mother--a greater monster even than her monster son, remember. She was alive, but completely inert.

When the company found her, they were enraged, and I could only watch in some horror as her figure was taken up by one of the members of the company, and then beaten against the walls and ground and trunks of trees until it broke apart into hundreds of fragments... Fragments, surprisingly, of a tough and decidedly unappetizing meat.

The company then all gathered around her, and pieces of her flesh were doled out on all sides. My guide told me that I must eat--that to do otherwise would give grave offense.

The giant who had beaten her into morsels grinned at me, holding out a scrap of meat. It looked like undercooked chicken skin, with stringy dark meat and fat clinging to it, and it was disgusting. I understood that Grendel's mother was the embodiment of human sin and evil, and that I was being offered a kind of communion with that.

I did not want to eat, but it was clear that I must, so I took the scrap of meat.

"You'll love the taste of it! You'll see!" leered the giant. And I shook my head, knowing that that at least was not true.

It tasted awful, but I knew that, in tasting it, I was acknowledging that there was nothing that was in Grendel's mother that was not in me. Not only did the assembled company expect me to take part in this bizarre communion, but it was actually right to do so, for I knew that, loathsome as her substance was to me, it was really not foreign to me at all, and that admitting that was the best protection against one day learning to "love the taste."

After that, a bonfire was lit somewhere, and music began to play. It was full dark, and I could see stars glittering by the thousands in the blue-black of the sky. There was no moon, but the stars were so bright that the naked boles of the trees in the woods all around were perfectly visible as deeper black silhouettes against the night sky.

I found myself swaying to the music. We were all gathered in a clearing, and the tone was peaceful and celebratory now, not monstrous. I knew that somewhere, at the opposite end of a long line of figures, was the god Odin, and that it was his celebration in some way. I could feel the music swelling in me, and a great sensation of joy and love, and the willingness to do and strive rising up in me. I knew (and I had a vision of antlers rising above Odin's head as I thought it--Odin being at least one of the figures who has loaned his mythology to my patron, Herne)that I was going to dance, soon... to let to music move me out into the clearing and set me spinning.

I knew, too, that my dancing would bring Odin to me--that my joyful willingness to dare and to love was going to draw him to dance with me. And that I would gaze into his eyes--

"You must never gaze into his eyes!" gasped my guide--

and, in fact, that I would gaze most deeply into his missing eye, the eye he traded for the wisdom of Mimir's well

the eye that held the deep infinity of space and all those far away, rushing, rushing stars

and I would fall and fall and fall and not mind, ever...

And I woke up just before I would have begun to move, to dance.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Dive, Dive, Dive!

We're still alive and well, Peter and I... but that part of our lives we like to call our "annual trans-Arctic submarine voyage"--teaching school in two different public school systems--has begun. All summer long, we got used to daylight, exercise, friends, and time to think, play, and work around the house. I got a satisfying amount of writing done, and Peter finished building the walk-in closet in the attic and almost finished insulating it.

But now it's September, and we're diving for the sea floor. We'll be down here, under the ice, far from our summer lives of friends and free time, until we emerge again in June.

I exaggerate slightly. I'm going to go to Meeting for Worship today, and I'll be attending our local RPG group just as religiously as meeting. (Amusingly, it's the second place I find my spiritual community--several of my very favorite longtime Pagan community members attend week after week, and recently, a number of our Quaker fFriends have begun to join us in slaying orcs and rescuing dragon eggs. I think that Beth's game has been going on for something like fifteen or twenty years now--and the friendships shared between its members are deep and strong.)

And, of course, I'll be in attendance at That Annual Pagan Gathering once again in October. I'm already looking forward to it.

But, overall, I forget how all-absorbing teaching really is. Down here under the polar ice, there's little to remind me of the passage of time. Has it really been three weeks since my last post here? (Pause to double-check the calendar.) It really has!

Ambitious dreams I'd had for this school year--twice weekly exercise after school, and once each weekend; taking training to be a telephone support person for New Orleaneans in exile from their post-Katrina city; attending every meeting for business; being a faculty advisor for at least one student group... all these are fading away. I don't see how I can add even small commitments to the one big one--teaching high school English--I've got on my plate.

I forget the bone-weariness of the end of a day of teaching. It will fade--it does get better over the course of the year, and the September adjustment is always the worst. But it is hard to re-enter that state of perpetual exhaustion.

People think it's easy to teach school. People think that the problems in American education are the result of lazy and uncaring teachers. It is bloody difficult not to get pissed off about that. And even though, so far this year, my school days have been much shorter than in past years (I'm usually out of the building by 4--5 at the latest. Let's hear it for Year Four, and a mere 9 hour day, down from the typical 11 of my first year) when I hear the politicians calling for "extended learning time"--meaning adding another 25% to the school day or year--I know that I'll never be good enough at this job to withstand that.

I'm loving teaching this year. I can hear this voice of competence rolling out of me this year. I'm mentoring a Fullbright exchange teacher this year, too. (We carpool together, so, if you add the time I spend mentoring on the way to and from work each day, I haven't actually gotten my work-day down to nine hours yet. But I choose not to count that time as "work"--it would be too depressing if I did!) That's tremendously satisfying, too. It's exciting to step back and talk about the big picture of education with a curious, intelligent co-worker: why we have special education laws the way we do, and how to teach to multiple intelligences and learning styles; the importance of supporting independent reading and frequent writing practice; ways to get students engaged more deeply through projects and hands-on assignments as well as traditional tests and essays.

And I find the cultural compare and contrast, between India and the States, to be fascinating. It's fun.

It's exhausting.

And I don't know if I can really do another year like last year, spending 10 hours a day during the work week on teaching and planning, and another 6--8 hours each weekend on grading.

Damn. I'm whining. Sorry, guys. It's just, even having fun, I'm not totally sure I can keep the pace till retirement. I know not all teachers work this hard, and I know that both my perfectionism and the difficulty I have staying organized make teaching especially challenging to me. But I really do think that the American people are just not getting it, the ways that "education reform" has the potential to suck the life out of an educational system that, in most communities, in most schools, actually works pretty well, thank you. I really wish that people who think teachers are a spoiled "special interest group" could spend two weeks teaching in a modern classroom before they feel free to set education policy on a state or national scale.

Not gonna happen. But I do think the disrespect with which Americans view teachers and schools is related to the ebbing respect we have for education itself... and that culture of disrespect gets my nod for the most serious issue I contend with in my classroom.


Sorry. I meant this post to be more positive than this. I really am enjoying the victories of teaching this year already: writing groups that I think are really going to work; kids who are able to spot and discuss themes and imagery in poetry already this year; the small class sizes I have at the moment, and the sense I have of a good balance of personalities and talents in each of my classes.

Not to mention the deep satisfaction of the Fullbright mentoring thing.

But I bet the submarine guys feel a fluttering of dread as they dive deep for each new season of silent running, too.
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