IN January, midway through the school year, I'll begin a sabbatical, that precious pause granted educators for renewal and special projects. Some of my colleagues and many students have asked if I'm excited. The students usually ask, ``Where are you going for your sabbatical?'' I'm not going anywhere; this sabbatical is not for a Florentine sojourn, but for catching up on the things that having a young family and time-consuming professional demands force lower on the list of priorities.
The teachers all know that the time is precious as much for what you don't have to do as for what you can do: One morning I'll wake up and not have to go to homeroom, not have a faculty meeting, not have to lead discussions on last night's homework. And I won't have to enforce THE OFFICIAL RULES. Over the years I have distilled the various school prohibitions into two rules: Don't Make a Mess. The second is like unto it: If You Make a Mess, Clean It Up ... Without Having to be Asked. They seem to cover the whole ground from spilt milk to hurt feelings to stealing.
I find myself making lists, as if packing for a journey. Things to be done: end-of-term comments (``Louise is doing fine on the vocabulary quizzes, but her syntax and word choice are torpid and lackluster.''), recommendation letters for 35 students who want to go on to another school after graduation (``Louise has many fine qualities to recommend her as an English student. Her large vocabulary for instance.''), clean my office, and leave notes for my substitute explaining what I have and haven't taught.
I wonder: Have I taught them enough? Did they learn what they'll need to know next year? Did we do enough grammar? Write enough essays? Read the right poems? With only half a year to get the job done, the questions are more urgent; a false sense of responsibility suggests I should have front loaded the whole year's work to assure everything was covered.
How do I account for all of the other little distillations that I hope have occurred during the term? I'd like to know, for instance, if the class really understood that ``quote for the day'' from Robert Frost that I put on the blackboard back in October: ``Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat.'' Did they believe me when I said a good poem should make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end?
Well, 150 new vocabulary words will go a long way, if they remember them. They should be able to write a sentence with a series of participial phrases in a comma series. I can check grammar off the list. They've got a start on the six-to-eight-sentence expository writing assignment. As for the poetry, there is always one more crucial poem to be read.
A teacher always has to give that one last instruction. ``Write in ink.'' ``Check your spelling.'' ``Omit needless words.'' ``It's due Friday.'' I won't miss the two questions: ``How long does it have to be?'' (Two pages, or one paragraph - whichever comes first) and ``Will it be graded?''
What about the silent instructions, the messages conveyed moment by moment that are more character-acting than overt direction? Will they remember the timbre of my voice reading ``Fern Hill,'' the tone that said ``this poem is vital''? Did they really hear Whitman's ``barbaric yawp''? Will they remember to read ``The Snowman'' on the occasion of a big snowfall, as I said we would, if I'm not there?
I've thought of leaving a box of sealed envelopes full of poems marked for any contingency: Read this on Valentine's Day. Open and read in case of heartbreak. Read this on a day when the wind whistles through the branches of the willow at the corner of the building. Open and read on the day the first tulip opens. Open and read when you can smell the mud in the puddle by the shop building. In case of fire, or fire drill, bring this when you line up outside ... to read while waiting for the fire marshall's ``all clear.'' Open and read the morning of commencement. And finally, open if you want to read a poem that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.
It must be a common teacherly urge, this wanting to be sure that something deeper than gerunds has lodged in the heart of the student. The other day I read a poem by William Stafford for ``poem of the day,'' ``A Ritual to Read to Each Other.'' It begins:
If you don't know the kind of person I am and I don't know the kind of person you are a pattern that others made may prevail in the
world and following the wrong god home we may miss
In part what I'm feeling must be the urge to get the important things said when coming to the cusp of two experiences. The transition from teaching to a sabbatical demands an important ritual of words. There was only half a year to get ``the wagon hitched to a star''; the teacher wants to be sure everyone is at least looking to the heavens.
Well, I'll just have to trust that I've left some answers in plain sight. Perhaps it's best that final instructions be simple, a distillation. I'll just leave a last ``quote for the day'' on the blackboard: ``Take it easy - but take it (Woody Guthrie). Stick together. Be kind. Under no circumstances break rule No. 2.'' That oughta cover it.