There are rare, rare moments in teaching that are utterly sublime. I experienced one the other day.
I get to co-teach a very cool little class titled “Science, Literature and the Environment” with a biology professor that I have come to deeply appreciate, both for her intellect and sardonic wit. She is one of the few people I would trust with a dark secret, and she is also somebody with whom I would never want to burden by telling her one. Being in this weekly collaborative environment with her pushes me to reach farther in exploration of our subject and therefore, in my teaching. To say I respect her is an understatement. I respect her AND I want to hang out with her. That doesn’t always happen, does it?
But damn…we’d reached the time in the course for approaching Transcendentalism.
How does one teach Transcendentalism?
We’d been working our way into Thoreau, Emerson and Whitman having already explored Leopold, Stegner, Muir… Yes, students can read these greats and talk about them. They can try and define the esoteric term itself, in terms of the era and the ones who formed the “hood” of crazies during the time. They can figure the dimensions of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden, comparing it to the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company of today. They can even read Emerson’s journaled angst in an attempt to peel back the rind and bite into the fruit of what was such unchartered territory it was considered (by some) to be the truest form of blasphemy before God.
And they did. Students wrote, spoke with each other, wrote some more…I continued to ask them questions. We discussed and made some connections.
But I also went home wondering how much of this material from the 1800s was really seeping into the permafrost of their cynicism…or was it just my own cynicism? Did they think about this outside of class? If they did, would it be the mark of an effective teacher or brilliant material? Did it matter? Would Thoreau have a Facebook page? Would Emerson write a blog? What causes would they find worthy? And by the way, what IS inherently worthy? Is this stuff even relevant today? If so, why?
And so it was the other night, student Richard M. attempted to convey the majesty he felt upon driving through a specific section of the California redwoods. A bit about Richard–everything about him oozes easy confidence, from the inclusive way he refers to his peers as “bro” to his easy laugh. Richard manages to maintain a relaxed, casual humility, combined with self-deprecating humor. He’s magnetic within this class. But this particular night, Richard struggled to find his words—a rarity. He looked up at the florescent lights, as if there he would find the inspiration. Still, the words failed him. He could describe the drive into the forest, he even managed an attempt at the SIZE of these trees, but when it came time to express how they made him feel, Richard was empty. After several clearly frustrated minutes, the words finally dribbled, “I just…I just…I’ve just never…ever felt the way I felt when…I saw those…those TREES, you know?”
Chuck R. is red-headed, slim, tall, and prefers cammo and flannel. As charismatic as his peers find Richard, Chuck has been more solitary, often prefering the company of another older, “non-traditional” student. Chuck leans more to quiet. Sitting as far away from Richard as was possible in that room, it was Chuck who broke the silence. He spoke the sentence softly.
“It’s the transparent eyeball, dude…”
Richard looked momentarily confused. “What?”
Chuck leaned forward in his desk to address Richard more directly and with more volume.
“It’s Emerson’s ‘transparent eyeball’…it’s right here…”
Chuck picked up his “Nature” excerpt, skimmed a moment to find the spot and began reading:
“In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, — master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature….”
“Dude. It’s the TRANSPARENT EYEBALL…you saw it all…”
Are you kidding me?
Chuck read Emerson.
Sublime. Sublime. Sublime.
Mary Oliver, where are you?
I need a poem.