April 10th, 2018—Every year I search out the first signs of spring. I begin watching long before the snow melts or the constellation Orion slides below the winter horizon. I seem compelled into this state of being by two sources. The first is an abiding fascination for the subtle ways that spring asserts the gift of renewal on the landscape. The second is a sense of impatience; enough is enough. I’ve had enough of winter’s cold and dormancy. I’m ready to dance in the mud, anticipating spring’s jubilant colors.
And so it is with my teaching. If I’m paying close attention I can see the winter of my teaching, when I feel most disconnected from my gifts, giving way to the explosive possibilities of spring. This is the promise of spring. As much as I welcome the thawing ground of my teaching despair I recognize that there is also a cautionary side to spring. In the natural world; the sun warms the earth, the ground thaws, and my flowerbeds and gardens burst forth with growth. At first this is refreshing and energizing, but then the work comes; weeding, pruning, tending, deciding what to keep and what to till back into the soil. This is the peril of spring gardening; and so it is with my teaching. When I find myself consumed by all the teaching projects that need attention I turn to the wisdom/warning of Thomas Merton. He writes:
“There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by non-violent methods most easily succumbs: activism and over-work. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes [his/her] work for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of [his/her] own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom, which makes work fruitful.”
On my office wall I have a watercolor I painted in response to this quote. When I find my inner activist-teacher vigorously responding to or worse, forcing, the early budding of spring in my teaching I look at my painting and try to remember to move deliberately. Because as Merton suggests: “The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his/her work for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his/her own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom, which makes work fruitful.” For me, “frenzy” carries a distinct spring-like feel, a sort of inner disquiet centered on the urge to get really busy really fast, to work frantically for the promise of change in the world of education.
But if I’m not careful, my passion for setting things right, for cleaning up the messes of the thawing world, can actually contribute to disintegration, the peril, rather than bringing education into harmony with its bigger purposes. Merton calls this “a pervasive form of modern violence…” I see his point, although it is hard to fully accept that he is talking about me and my destructive forms of teaching. The more I turn my frenzied energy, like the undisciplined nature of spring’s release, to making everything right the more I sabotage my best intentions. If I’m not careful I can become the violence in the world that I’m working to redirect into peace and justice. I could become the sudden return of winter smothering budding daffodils in a blanket of snow; my winter teaching suppressing the emerging shoots of student knowing.
I believe that spring is a frenzy of promise and peril. I look forward each spring to the decisions I make about how to invest my energy so as to advance the greater good in my classroom. And like a good gardener I know I need to make conscious choices. Which plants (ideas) grow best in the soil (classroom climate) I’ve cultivated? But I also need to practice patience and awareness that learning and change happens on its pace not on my insistence.