When I am reading for enjoyment, not for study, I have precarious and inefficient shorthand for my experience as a reader. I draw smiley faces next to things that make me smile. I underline things that I think my future self will want to go back and find. I draw stars next to other things, though I have yet to figure out just why I do this; stars are pure impulse. I draw stars out of whimsy. I am just imagining how shocked my students would be if they only knew the woman responsible for allocating their annotation grades, marked her own texts like this. As I rummage through pages of amateurish annotation, looking for inspiration, I come upon this line, glad that I underlined for my future self, me now, to stumble back upon: “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment,” –Annie Dillard
And I begin to think about my own astonishment and I begin to think that this might be an incredible way to explain what it is like to teach and live here. And I begin to think about recent moments where I found myself completely immersed in awe, big eyed, and astounded…
As a teacher at The Island School, I was made and set here to give voice to this:
Tuesday morning run-track we ran the loop: four miles with various add-ons. We can take a longer loop running away from the main loop, which will return to intersect the main loop: a side street like a boomerang. If the loop were the circumference of a flower bud, you add distance by running around the petals. Everyone begins and ends at the flower stem, they just trace the flower differently. Tuesday’s run did not feel like a flower, more like one of the sand spurs that get stuck in my socks here: painful. We complicated the run by adding a sprint schedule. Every four minutes we were to sprint for thirty seconds. Justin Symington says that this is how you get faster. I do not yet know if this is true, but this is certainly a great way to make your muscles burn, get more out of breath, and increase your exhaustion.
More than half way into the run I had pulled off a couple of flower petals and rejoined the inner circle. This put me behind students that I often run ahead of. I came up on a group of them jogging slower, just a mile to go and obviously weary. I took their pace for a moment and urged them on. I moved past and picked up my pace. I yelled and looked back as I pass: Who wants to push it with me back to campus? Faces bobbed up and down with their steps saying “don’t look at me,” quiet and tired. Marianne stepped forward and agreed to the challenge. She pushed on and took my stride, faster and she was breathing hard. She looked like it hurt. It did hurt. But, suddenly less for me. We started to talk, the casual intimacies of a run buddy: shared pain makes for great conversation. We pushed each other on, and although we had already stopped the sprinting part of our run, I challenged her to one more: just until the gate ahead, a hundred meters or so. And she pulled out in front of me, running faster and harder then me and I could barely keep up. We passed the gate like a finish line and kept on going. Now slower is okay, I told her. Just breath, evenly, breathe. We jogged. Look—we can see the windmill, that means were close. She was quiet and her white cheeks were flushed, still breathing hard and looking like it hurts. Somewhere in my muscles, in the minutes I paced at her side, pain was replaced by total and complete admiration at her determination and will. Down the road, we saw the school’s sign come into view, into the driveway and down we went: aches and steps and pain. Okay, I said, when we get to these vans you better sprint, and you better not let me pass. And she flew out in front, sprinting again, I could not pass her. I tried, too. I really did. She hit the flagpole first, our official finish line for exercise. As we walked off the sting in our muscles and gave each other a buddy high five for finishing together, sweat and pride poured out of me.
A few days later, Sarah Sasek asked me if she could interview me for her Histories class research project. Her focus of inquiry: What makes people happy? She flipped on her hand held recorder and began to prompt me forward with compelling questions like: How do you define happiness? Do you believe there is a difference between true happiness and false happiness? What is the relationship between money and happiness? Do you think you can attract happiness into your life? These are pretty big questions, for such a little recorder. I think, and begin to articulate. The incredible thing about questions like this is that they remind you who you are and what you believe. So often we live life by moving within it, without commentary or reflection. As I rambled on (as I often do with words, look here at the length of this blog, for example) she nodded her head and with a slight smile, her eyes would occasionally glimmer with flashes of brilliance. Flashes and light like sparks of herself being forged. It was like the more we talked the more she seemed to be creating herself and self-consciously considering her own beliefs on happiness and wellbeing. And these were pretty big questions, for such a young lady. I left our conversation feeling reminded of myself, with my beliefs in radiant focus. I left too, astounded at Sarah’s curiosity. Eventually, Sarah would articulate in her Oral Histories Report opening paragraph: “Happiness is a feeling of complete inner peace with one’s self and the world around him or her; a feeling of expansion combined with a trust that this feeling can never be taken away, and a desire for every other human being to share this state of well being and lightheartedness. I believe that that every human being’s goal in life is to achieve this happiness.” What a wonderful thing to believe.
A few nights ago, walking to dinner, I passed the boys dorm and heard the familiar strums of Will’s mandolin on the back deck. I had some words to relay from his dad, so I cut back toward the beach to deliver them. I came upon a three boy string band: Brandon taking a go at the mandolin and Will strumming the guitar. Auggie was pickin’ along with Will O’s banjo. After some finger stumbles and frustrated strums on unfamiliar instruments, Will and Brandon swapped back to more familiar strings. The trio began a song and hit a melodic stride together measuring out notes and sounds, sweet and bluegrass fast. They played a song I’d never heard, about lovin’ someone and pain; the kind of songs that strings were meant to sing. Auggie hit harmonies with Will, they looked like old men on an old porch, with words with sounds like summers in hot southern places. “Augie has the voice of an angel,” Brandon would later describe. And across the beach facing the dorm, the sand was bright orange in the setting sun. The illuminated clouds were streaked white and red, the ocean blue. As I sat on the steps, cheeks tight, and barely containing my smile, my heart was still and my toe was tapping. I looked out on the passing day as the boys behind me sang into the coming night. And in the back of my mind I heard a sound humming high, in tune, singing with them. It was this: the voice of my own astonishment.