Starting Here

I can only learn from those who can love.
                                        Goethe's journals

"Ms. Staley, do you ever feel that through touching the life of students, you are beating death and saving stories from the flames?"
                                      --Williams's response to a shared writing

y older brother, Jed, likes to remind me that I actually initiated my work as a teacher the summer after third grade when I organized our basement playroom into my first classroom. Still under the influence of the Sisters of Mercy, I wore a black dress that belonged to a deceased relative and fastened a rosary through my Hopalong Cassidy belt so that the beads would mimic that wonderful clicking sound Sister Mary Margaret made as she moved around the room. As I remember it, this was also the first day of summer vacation and, from a pool of sunlight at the top of the stairs, Jed yelled, "We just got OUT! What are you doing down there?"

In hindsight, it's an even better question that it was in 1952, delivered by an incredulous and mocking sibling. Indeed, what was I doing down there using Little House on the Prairie and the Baltimore Catechism as my twin texts for summer school? I remember there was a child-sized blackboard nailed to the cement block wall and, unable to recruit my brother or any of my neighborhood friends, I'd brought my dolls and stuffed animals as "stand-in" students. What was I doing?

From this vantage, it's clear that I was practicing a serious form of play; I was also exhibiting my faith in the power of a classroom and theauthority of a teacher to transform something everyday--a summer morning, a book you love, a basement --into a wholeness, the trees and the forest. I was, of course, inhabiting the territory of a vocation, that place in the heart where passion and curiosity make of the moment--Now!

My unknowing vocational mentors along the way were Winifred Kitchen, the second-grade teacher who read Kon-Tiki (a NY Times best-seller) aloud to us and who sent me off to the library to choose my own books; Eleanor Schaffner who wrote on my report card at the end of my 5th grade year, "Ann is a natural leader." And then, a novice teacher, Ron Ziegler, whose first year of teaching was my 8th grade year, and who, by bringing himself fully to his students, transformed assignments to acts of real learning. These three extraordinary persons and practitioners, I know now, loved what they were doing, and loved in that true way of our profession, those who came to their classrooms. What I know no is how much I learned from them and how deeply they enacted Emerson's obiter dictum: Find the good and praise it.

So, along, there was this "something" inside me that was paying close attention to my teachers and their classrooms. I paid attention not only to my own learning--the assignments, the tests and papers--but also to the "feel" of it all: Mrs. Kirby's tone of voice, my friends' responses, Mrs. Morrison's beautiful wool suits, Mr. Jacob's first question of the year, "What is science?"

I went off to college then, in 1964, knowing that I wanted to teach, that I wanted to teach English, that I wanted a life with a life-of-the-mind at its center, that I wanted to read and write and notice and listen all through the day. I wanted a life, and I have made one, in which the act of beginning something new happens again and again--in a poem, with a circle of writers on any Tuesday, pen-on-the-page, starting here.