Back to School

I never thought I’d ever be old enough to nod my head in sage acknowledgment of sayings such as:  Youth is wasted on the young.

But I’ve decided that George Bernard Shaw was really on to something.

I am back in the US…again.  I have essentially become a trans-Atlantic commuter.  This trip brought me back for Katie’s Winter Weekend in which parents attend classes with their children and get to literally go “back to school” for the day.

I learned a lot.

First, I learned that I have retained absolutely no knowledge in Math.  None.  Or should I say, Zero.  The teacher was talking about triangles.  There were right angles, transitive properties of similar triangles, reflexive something or other, and something called a postulate (I still don’t know what that is)…. I literally had no clue.  I guess the brain really does atrophy when not applying itself.  And really, is there any reason in my life to solve for the hypotenuse?

The next three classes were bliss for me.  European History centered on the creation of what is now the modern city plan of Paris.  I had just seen Les Mis, so 19th century France was fresh in my mind (as were several tragic ballads).  I have to admit, I loved watching the teacher put up slides of Paris and realizing that I had just recently walked down those very boulevards in the Fall.

In English class, I fell a little in love with the teacher.  He referred to the Harkness table around which the students sit as the “communal hearth where we gather in the winter to warm ourselves with the fires we ignite in our conversation.”  He really said that!  With such a poetic introduction, it seems only fitting that the class spent the next half hour dissecting the poems of Emily Dickinson.  I used to find poetry cumbersome and frustrating.  As I sat in that classroom, I became entranced by the beauty of the language and imagery in this poem about snow, a perfect topic as the ground outside was covered in the previous evening’s powdery “celestial veil”.

It Sifts from Leaden Sieves by Emily Dickinson

It sifts from Leaden Sieves —
It powders all the Wood.
It fills with Alabaster Wool
The Wrinkles of the Road —

It makes an Even Face
Of Mountain, and of Plain —
Unbroken Forehead from the East
Unto the East again —

It reaches to the Fence —
It wraps it Rail by Rail
Till it is lost in Fleeces —
It deals Celestial Veil

To Stump, and Stack — and Stem —
A Summer’s empty Room —
Acres of Joints, where Harvests were,
Recordless, but for them–

It Ruffles Wrists of Posts
As Ankles of a Queen —
Then stills its Artisans — like Ghosts —
Denying they have been —

Last, I enjoyed a Theater class in which two students’ original performance was critiqued by their peers.  The flamboyant, enthusiastic teacher culled responses from the group by eliciting Aristotle’s essential elements of theater.  There were certain “guideposts” to illustrate in performance such as conflict, relationship, humor, environment.  I kept thinking of Shakespeare’s famous lines:

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts…

Suddenly, I feel like I have played many parts on my life’s stage.  Now an Adult, a Mother, a Wife….It is tempting to want to return to an earlier performance and be a Student once again.

But then came my last class.  This one was a special one offered to the adults only, a Master Class in Creativity and Imagination.  I found myself seated around a Harkness table with about 20 other parents.  The teacher was an eccentric older woman who looked like she stepped out of commune in rural Vermont.  Her white-gray hair was long and untamed, her jewelry was coarse and crafty, her attire was baggy and frenetically patterned.  She explained the rules:  Be bold.  Tell the radical truth.  Be Wild. 

Then she started barking like a dog!  I kid you not.

She wanted unintentional expression, a gibberish formed of familiar language and non sequitur sounds.  She demanded that we beat the Harkness “drum” with our fists, pound our chests, tap our neighbor — all while howling, braying, and hooting in a slow crescendo that escalated into a communal scream.

I started sweating.  The guy next to me looked stunned.  Some people smirked.  Others avoided eye contact.  Most went along with the drill but were secretly searching for the nearest exit.

And so it is that we all have our exits and entrances as Shakespeare pointed out.  You can’t go back.  You can never be young again.  And high school is not a time anyone really wants to return to.

And yet, it was awesome to re-enter the role of Student for the day and to have nothing more to do than actively learn…

…and bark like a dog while pounding my chest!

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