One of my favorite students asked me once
edited: Monday, July 17, 2006
By Drake N Lumina
Rated "PG" by the Author.
Posted: Monday, July 17, 2006
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A graduation story.
One of my favorite students asked me once, during class, to explain what I think about God, spirits, the meaning of life, religion. It was a bait-and-switch; she knew I couldn't, by law, profess my personal beliefs to the class. She's just the kind of kid who likes to bait teachers and see how they'll react. She wanted, in a word, to see me squirm.
Well, I didn't; I quickly denied her, and the rest of the class, the opportunity to plumb the depths of my consciousness and casually ignore the day's lesson. I deflected the question, saying, "We'll talk about it after you graduate. Back to the text."
That was a month ago.
She graduated yesterday, and I helped officiate; she was giddy, and I was exhilarated. Clichés abounded as every important-looking person with a microphone, from Salutatorian to Superintendent, emphasized the accomplishments of the class and the support of parents and the necessity of following dreams and the impending human revolution that would take us all by storm as soon as the class of '06 hit the "real" world. Funny: we never tired of hearing that.
I brought a book—not for the ceremony, but for inevitable pre-ceremony wait time. It was Annie Dillard’s 1982 collection of her “work, such as it is”: Teaching a Stone to Talk.
The book of essays is Dillard in full form. It is a treatise, in multiple narratives, on nature and spirituality. It is one brilliant mind’s struggle to react to the world as it is: cruel, silent, mysterious, and pregnant with meaning. It is always a delight to participate in Dillard’s excursions—to experience her wonder at a solar eclipse and a weasel and a floating tree and a Catholic mass and a deer in a noose on the banks of the Amazon.
Dillard has become, of late, my spiritual mentor. It seems to me that if anyone knows what God, the universe, and life are about, then Annie Dillard knows. Her credibility to my mind is a result of her incredulity at the ways that nature works and the ways that humans have affected it. Everything about the world, even its occasional silence, is heavier and more real to Dillard than to anyone I’ve met or read. She trains her eyes to see what no one sees: bugs in flight, blades of grass cut by field mice, frogs whose innards are slowly dissolved and sucked, as through a straw, by giant water bugs. For her, every bloodletting is a sacrament, every birth a train crash. Anger lives in clouds, and fields occasionally contain angels.
To nature and its most enigmatic race, humans, this noticer of all things gives an impeccably informed and passionate shrug.
I finished reading my book while we were waiting for graduation to start. Then I found the girl who had asked me, in class, what I thought of God and religion. I told her to find me after the ceremony. I said I had a book for her, and I had marked the page that would answer her question.
She said, “Wow, it’s so great that you actually took the time to do that. I’ll definitely find you.”
She didn’t, and I’m only a little disappointed. I looked for her for about fifteen minutes, then concluded that she was gone. (I’m very tall. If she were there, I would have spotted her in five.)
Why are books so sacred to me, so common to most people? Perhaps for the same reason that a musk-sniffing weasel is so sacred to Annie Dillard, and so revolting to everyone but a few naturalists. Since my student didn’t find me, I get to keep my book: the original sacred copy on whose pages I found delight and despair, redemption and remorse; the original ink whose precise, uncompromising diction almost made me weep while I waited to hear clichés about life and the “real world.”The final time I heard someone say, “the real world,” it was the Valedictorian. He had just finished paying tribute to each of the individual teachers whose examples he planned to follow for the rest of his life. When he added, “in the real world,” I wondered what he knew of it, and what he would find out. When I thought of what I knew and what I had just learned from Annie Dillard, I wept.