Today as I met my students for the first time, I couldn't help recalling an old Hebrew hymn in which the author writes, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” While perhaps not many of us public school teachers share the Hebrew poet's theology, I do think the weight and the beauty of our students, and therefore our work, merits a moment's reflection.
First, there's a weight to our work because there's one to our students. The poet describes himself as “fearfully” made, in the sense of, “There is so much complexity and beauty and wonder and light and darkness and conflict and peace inside of me that when I reflect on it, it moves me to careful reverence.” This fearfulness is the same sense you might get at the edge of the Grand Canyon or on a boat in the ocean — you're not fearful in the sense of, “I might die right now,” but you're fearful in the sense of, “Wow… this is all a lot bigger than me. I'm kind of small.”
Today as I met the 120ish kids I'm assigned this year, reading over their shoulders as they wrote on their index cards, listening in as they spoke with their partners, watching as they acknowledged some strengths and admitted some weaknesses, this fearfulness washed over me a bit. Here I am, teaching these young people who are 14 to 15 years into their unique and substantial lives. No human has ever lived the same life as them — they are unique. And without them in the years that they've already lived, time and space would not be the same today. Trillions and trillions of the very atoms of the universe would be arranged differently. The social body that is our town would be different. In this sense, each of these people is substantial.
And of course this fearfulness leads to wonder, too. When we look into a clear sky at night from a remote place, somewhere far from the fog of artificial light, and we see a minuscule fraction of the universe's quintillion stars, we can't help but let our dropped jaws shift into smiles. It is a distinctly human emotion, to come upon something so much greater than oneself and to be transported into the free and humble wonder of a child.
What a privilege to have the government require that I teach world history and literacy to groups of 30+ teenagers each day for a school year, to be part of a society that believes in doing something as novel as educating all its young. What moments of growth will I get to watch in these lives this year? What problems will I get to solve? What conversations will I get to have? Qhat things will I learn? No person knows the answers, but what is sure is that the answers would change were I to remove even one of my students from my roster.
And in light of all this, how then should we do our work? Fearfully and wonderfully, I propose, acknowledging both the weight and the privilege of the task. Will it be hard? Of course. Frustrating? Yes. Most often devoid of any sense of wonder or grandeur? Yeah, probably.
So let us discipline ourselves to stand back and see it, more than just on our first days of school. And let us set up the constraints within which such discipline can take root — constraints like getting to sleep on time, attending to our energy, keeping in view the objective, and not doing all things equally well (or even at all).
Why? Because the work is fearful and wonderful, and you and I know that full well.