We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”
I’m not the leader of this expedition.
I’m usually a leader these days, whether in the classroom or on the track or, as this weekend, on a field trip to London. We’ve brought twenty-one students, all of them finished with their Advanced Placement exams in European History or English, across the Channel to London for a long weekend full of museums, castles and plays. We’ve seen and touched faces and places that before now had existed, whether fact or fiction, only as ink on pages. We peer through the gate that brought prisoners to the Tower of London. We hear choirs at Canterbury sing songs written half a century ago. We shiver in the Globe Theater as Hamlet ponders his existence. We’ve read and studied, but now we are here.
This afternoon, though, is free time, and I’ve decided to spend it with students. Only two of these students are in my English class, so the weekend has been an opportunity to know new students, many of them much like I was in high school. (These are AP humanities students, after all; I’ve taken the classes they’ve just completed.) At the end of our second destination, I accept an invitation from a group of juniors headed, in the words of one of them, “to Buckingham Palace on the bus and then to the Tate Modern for like 20 minutes maximum because it closes at 5:50 but I have to go back there at least for a little while.”
“On the bus?” I ask. “You know that we could get to Buckingham way quicker on the Undergound, right?”
“We know,” Leader replies seriously. “But we want to take the bus. We know what we’re doing.”
I’ve spent a few weeks in London, here and there, so I’m not worried about getting lost. Nor will I let them get too lost, I resolve, watching the five of them pore over their maps, Undergound and above-ground, deciphering street names and bus routes. They have a leader, and she’s becoming a good one as she reads signs, asks for directions and points out our route.
I spend the afternoon following these engaging, clever young people around London, watching them find their way on light rail, Underground and finally the dreamed-of red double-decker bus. I could probably get us there quicker, with fewer wrong turns, but this expedition isn’t about touching the bases, snapping photographs of a palace and museum I’ve seen several times already. Today they’re learning to lead and explore, to remember where they’ve come from and find where they’re going. I feel fortunate to be along for the ride.
And it strikes me that this is teaching, too. I’ve benefitted from (and still benefit from) a life full of exploring, facilitated by parents and later teachers who encouraged me operate on the edges of comfort and familiarity. There was great freedom, as a student, in knowing that there’s someone who knew where and who I was, someone to find me if I got too lost.
I knew this when I was their age, appreciated the importance of “doing it on my own” to a fiercely independent degree. What I surprises me is how difficult it can be from this side of the classroom. In London, we can wander the streets all afternoon, safe in the knowledge that I can help them get to the Globe on time for Hamlet if worst comes to worst. But there are trickier mazes than Picadilly Circus, more complex questions than where the 38 Bus will pick us up, and our students need preparation for those, too.
As teachers we talk a fine line between answer-bank and guide. Sometimes students just need to know, right away, whether or not they’ve used usurp correctly in the sentence. But sometimes they need to discover who God is, how much God loves them and why the world still seems so broken, so much of the time. In one case, I have the answer. In the other, I can offer the beginning, the first few steps that I’ve taken myself, nudging them towards the revelation of Scripture, of creation and prayer and relationship. I can remind them who they are, point the way home. And then I can join the expedition, walking with them as they explore.
The marvelous thing about teaching is that, more often than not, this co-adventuring leads to new places. Sometimes this means questions I haven’t asked, perspectives I’ve never considered or insights about God and life that I’ve never seen.
Today, it means taking the bus. I’d never taken the bus in London, always speeding across the city through subterranean tunnels, never bothered with the complexities of stops and schedules. We climb the stairs to the second level, which sways dangerously like a flexible treetop, and watch wide-eyed as sunny London slides by, drawing us closer to the real palace of their historic imaginations.