“Only Connect”

“Only connect”, said E.M. Forster in his epigraph to Howards End. That personal connection to our students, and even more so the fleeting moments of sympathy for what is excellent in the human spirit, is the glue that bonds us to this craft called teaching.

Today I bore witness to a beautiful moment in a young person’s life… a profound moment of transition from self-despair to appreciation for inner excellence, and a life that may be forever changed.

One of my students, let’s call her Jane, had been a mournful waif all Fall Quarter. Head resting on her desk, eyes wistful as she gazed into distant worlds of her imagination, her default position presented little of the cheery goal-setting mode propounded by our School Agenda and ‘positive school culture’. I will not share what I know of her background in this public forum, but suffice it to say you’d cry mightily if you heard the details. In taking the first steps toward adulthood, Jane naturally needs a strong grounding. The search for self-identity becomes a painful exercise in regrets, uncertainty, and grief…

But today was a day of joy. She walked into class holding a large brown artists’ sketchpad and began showing something to a large cluster of students before class. Lots of “oooo-ing” and “ahhhh-ing” got my attention. In true teacher mode, as the bell was to ring in about 10 seconds, I decided to make the source of attraction the main focus for the start of class (since gee, half the class was already onto it): with Jane’s permission, I put it on the document camera.

She had made an ASTOUNDING pen and ink drawing! Very creative original designs with flowing graphic symbols merged peace symbols, musical notes, the yin-yang, and many other elements into one organic whole.

I reminded the class that they should remember they knew Jane in junior high, and be nice to her, so that when she’s a rich and famous artist when they’re 50 years old they can all try to mooch off of her. (I hope they don’t mind my sense of humor, they do laugh.) Her eyes lit up, and for the first time since I’d met her five months ago, her face literally glowed.

I asked her “So, how many years have you been drawing?”
“I did this last night.”
“Yes, but how many years have you been drawing?”
“Well, yesterday I did this,” —she shows me a tiny geometric sketch in the midst of a crumpled, scribbled math paper — “and I thought, what if I just continue this, so I did more on this bigger paper.”

So, there it was. This day, this past 24 hours, was her epiphany. Her shoulders square, she now walks with a spring in her step; I even saw her smile as she showed her work to schoolmates. What a beautiful thing, to witness a person’s first moments of justifiable pride in the dignity of inner excellence. It’s as if she were claiming her right to her place at the table of the human family; for her, this artistic skill could be the seed that begins a whole new life. What a privilege to be present for this connection.

2 thoughts on ““Only Connect”

  1. What a wonderful story! I love your description of Jane’s transition from a “mournful waif” to “…claiming her right to her place at the table of the human family.” There are few things greater than witnessing such a moment.

  2. Thanks Kristin. Yes, it was an amazing moment! Every teacher has these great moments to share; they certainly do keep us going!

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