Of Returning

Period One

My students have obligingly pulled their chairs into a rough circle on the second afternoon of school in 2013. We’re reading Emily Dickinson aloud, each student sharing his or her favorite from last night’s reading, explaining why it was so special. My classroom fills with the call and response of familiar words in familiar voices, punctuated by halting commentary, the Mystery Science Theater of poetry readings.

When the landlord turn the drunken bee
Out of the foxglove’s door…

“I like the image–these bees, stumbling around, drunk and full of pollen. It’s very unique.”

I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –

“This’s my favorite because it just sounds pretty, and happy. And I like that she would just go to the beach, and lie in the water. I like that.”

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Are you – Nobody – too?

“I just like… the way she writes. It just sounds so…unique.”

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died – 

“I like that it’s about death, but not really sad. Just really blunt.”

After three weeks of waking up after dawn, the first morning of school came early in frosty, silent darkness. Into this too-stillness, the students  poured in quickly, all at once, a monsoon of emotion disguised as teenagers in jeans and plaids, hooded sweatshirts and new haircuts.

I confess I’ve dreaded these days in other years. Both as student and teacher, I’ve returned from Christmas break feeling even with another whole vacation, I still wouldn’t be ready to come back. I’ve returned to classes that confused me, teachers and students that perplexed me, schools that I didn’t yet love. I’ve come back to pick up the pieces of sliding grades and broken relationships, days when I lived on prayer and coffee.

This isn’t one of those years.

After three weeks of break, I do feel rested, but this afternoon in the classroom, reading Emily Dickinson in a circle, is more than the “try again” reunion of teacher and class. I look around the circle, at these young people who have already traveled and experienced more than our reclusive, dreamy poet ever could have imagined, and realize with relief that I know them now.

What a difference it makes, knowing someone. How many days it took her to get home to China for Christmas. How many little sisters he has. Which languages he learned before English. That she hopes this was her last holidays in Afghanistan. These details lend texture to our discussion, help me understand not just what they say, but what they can’t yet say, and why.

Though it’s not revolutionary–this epiphany of love for these bright young people I see every day–it keeps surprising me. It is a gift, this love. From God, not me. A gift like this place, this season, this calling.

And while I may never love Emily Dickinson as much as some of them already do, I’ll never forget hearing her words in their voices, as we return to gather around words and share life in this grey valley of a German winter.

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