Do I Dare?
Jen Clem

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worthwhile,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!

-T.S. Eliot

“So what does it mean?” Ms. Smith queried, hand on hip. Our high school students stared at the final stanzas of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

“Don’t listen to the sirens—they will kill you!” The class laughed.

“Eat that peach! Sing to those mermaids!”


“Life is in the small moments.”

Again I am reminded that good teaching is in the questions.

The hardest part about teaching is coming up with the right questions, the questions that will propel the class forward, the questions that will help get there. “Prufrock is a poem of questions: questions dropped on a plate, questions tossed in the air, questions repeated and lingering. But the most important one, “the overwhelming question,” the speaker never defines.

*          *          *

On my journey from car to copy machine, I walk the wasteland of my high school experience, curiosity contained by walls and worksheets. I have returned with agency, approaching the copier with my collated handouts, ready to create change from within. Ten years since I began teaching and I feel the same paralysis. It’s all still here; it’s still happening. The pep rallies and penny drives and prom pom poms make me wonder: how do we create authentic community with each other?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin…

Friday night and I’m chaperoning the Sadie Hawkins dance. The blue and pink posters look like a fossil blown back to life. But it does not look like the 1950’s in this gym as couples twerk and grind. Girls hinge over their knees. Boys hold hips from behind. Eyes dart: where to look?

“Why do we still have school dances?” I asked the assistant principal of discipline.

“Every generation takes offense to the dancing of the next,” he told me. But he wasn’t standing outside of the girls’ bathroom listening to a sobbing teen.

“I don’t know what I did wrong… He wouldn’t get hard.”

How can we transform from the eyes that fix to the eyes that see if we aren’t even brave enough to look?

What about kids like Joshua, who see into the meaning of things? What are he and his friends doing on a Friday night?

Joshua told me about late nights with his best friend Arjun, hours spent “wrestling with his brain.” He liked logic puzzles. He once described the feeling of solving a complex mathematical problem as “a sense of accomplishment, like one a normal person would feel after successfully asking a girl on a date… you have to gently prod at a math problem and pick your brain until you get a grip on the roots.”

Meanwhile, in the corner of the gym, a boy danced alone, the beat releasing him from formulated phrase.

*          *          *

March is the month of waiting. Seniors wait for their college admissions decisions. The unanswered questions trigger a collective immobility. Do I move away from home? Can I afford to go there? Am I good enough? Homework is irrelevant compared to the enormity of the future void.

We teach them coping skills. We teach them stress release. We remind them to exercise and give them tools to budget time. We tell them that they don’t have to do it all, but advise them that it would be in their best interest to do most of it: the homework, the extracurriculars. We tell them that it’s worth it. So they can go to college. So they can get a good job. We promise them if; happiness is on the horizon. We assume the answer without providing the question.

“I don’t know what I want to major in,” Joshua told me one day during lunch. His dad worked as an engineer. Joshua’s passion was music. He loved the guitar. “Major in engineering,” I advised. “It’s good money. There will always be time to do what you love on the side.”

Twenty minutes away, guards stand along the train track gates outside of Gunn High School, vigilantly watching for another student preparing to throw himself on the tracks. 

*          *          *

I saw a lot of myself in Joshua, the boundary pusher, the mischief maker, the thoughtful essayist. He once left a “pot” brownie on my desk with a tie-dye label just to see what I would do. But he got good grades; he seemed grounded. It appeared that his quest for meaning allowed him to reflect on the depths, but not get so serious that he would drown.

I never did take those advanced courses in high school. My major was sleepless nights staring at stars, my teachers were Ani DiFranco, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Sylvia Plath, Julia Alvarez, midnight crusades in suburban misfits’ cars. In those sleepless nights I began to face the depths of myself. I do regret never taking those advanced courses. Who would I have been if I had challenged myself? Or what life did I save by never fully buying in?

“I’ve never met anyone who makes decisions the way you do,” my friend Emily said to me one night. We were caught by the gravitational pull of conversation, the frenetic energy of late night friends. “I’m fueled by achievement. That’s how I make decisions. I want the next challenge. I need the next thing. When you have to make a decision, you ask yourself what would make you happy. That’s strange. Not a lot of people ask themselves that. And that’s the criteria you use to make a decision. I’m not like that. I’m motivated through external validation.”

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;

How do I trust that I’ve been asking the right questions? It isn’t always easy to know your own heart. The question is there. The listening takes time.

Back in my college, I signed up for a weekend yoga retreat. We stretched over our legs for twenty minutes, fingers grasping heels, asking the inside, What do I want? What do I want? My muscles vibrated beneath me as my body sunk into the question. What do I want? The answer that came, like a flashlight beam in the dark, was self-acceptance. And I cried from the understanding, unearthing my tiny wanting so buried and starved.

In every revision of every story, the speaker gets closer to or farther from the truth. I thought it best to omit the contradictions in my own life for my high school kids. I don’t tell them about the credit override forms, the day I stood up in the middle of class, pushed in my chair, walked out and hid, a stress-melt shutdown. I don’t tell them how lonely I was that first semester, how it took me a transfer of schools to find my real friends. I don’t tell them that the answers are there waiting to be unearthed by their own souls, I don’t tell them to quiet and listen, I don’t tell them that the adults here are just winging it, that we can be just as scared.

*          *          *

In September, we read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. In his essay, Joshua wrote, “Sometimes to take the whole meaning of a book and understand the main themes and messages that lie within it requires a complete absolution of what you thought you knew about the topic. In the writing the author will attempt to shake off the dusty and cobweb-ridden conceptions readers have, and then throw them out the window. In The Things They Carried Tim O’Brien does exactly this with the reader’s over-glamorized and romanticized view of the Vietnam War. He shows that nobody was the same after the war and that it corrupted all that entered its malicious conveyor belt.”

It is exactly this message that James wants our students to understand. My friend James, a retired teacher who runs our robotics program, served as a medic during the Vietnam War. He was an engineer for years, which supplied his retirement, and then he found teaching, which supplied his soul. James walks in during lunch, hair back in a ponytail, wearing his Harley Davidson jacket and blue jeans. I look up from my computer screen.

“Hey James, how ya doin’?”

James sits on a desk and props one black boot on the chair. “You know, I wake up every morning and think how goddamn lucky I am to be alive.”

My students interview him about the war. They want to know what O’Brien means when he says that, “Story truth can be truer than happening truth.” They want to know how “absolute occurrence is irrelevant.” James answers their questions with fearless authenticity. Every year he travels to the Vietnam Memorial to honor the twenty-one names he knows on the wall. He cries for those he could not save. The students sit in silent reverence, honoring a moment both vulnerable and real.

“Thank you,” James says as he wipes his eyes. “This is good for me.”

He tells my students that they fill him with hope. That they are what his generation gave their lives for. They want to know why he became a teacher.

“If I have made a difference in one person’s life, then my life had meaning. That is the debt that we owe. We are on this planet to make this world a better place.”

My students write him letters. They write poems. I learned to look beyond circumstance, one student told him. I have hope now that my life won’t always be like this.

*          *          *

I was scheduled to chaperone the Sadie Hawkins dance again this year. Filled with dread, I checked student IDs. Something felt different. The theme was Grease. Girls wore homemade poodle skirts. Boys tucked white shirts into jeans, candy cigarettes behind their ears.

The leadership teacher had created a second dance floor outside, an alternative for the kids who didn’t want to bump and grind. Couples held hands under twinkling lights. Boys flipped girls over their shoulders; friends kicked alternating legs as Chubby Checker chuckled in the air. I stared mouth open in disbelief. Taylor flopped down next to me, her blonde bob half-shaved on the left side. She suffered from a crippling anxiety that often kept her out of school. I hadn’t seen her for a few days.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“I decided to take four AP classes this year, so…” she stared into the ellipses. Our conversation ended as her date arrived and pulled her onto the dance floor. I watched her get to be a kid for a few hours more.

Last Friday, two senior boys stopped in my room after their AP Biology field trip. They wanted to know the answer to an important question: did I know how cute baby penguins were? Had I ever seen a baby penguin?

I asked them if they were going to prom. “Are the school dances as bad as I’ve heard?”

They let out a collective groan. “Our generation is really divided,” one student explained. “We’re millennials. We’re split.”

“But the food at prom was really good. And we heard Sadies was really fun. I hope prom is like that. It’s fun to twirl your date.”

It doesn’t get any more human than the voices of our kids.

When we enter spaces of community, I believe that we do so in a search for authenticity. I believe we are all searching for permission to let the inside out.

I want to go back to that day during lunch. I want to untell Joshua to be an engineer. I want to tell him that the people who get found get lost for a while.

I want to tell you, reader, that I don’t know how we will solve the world’s problems, but I feel hopeful knowing that we will have the help of our kids.

*          *          *

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

On Thursday morning, Joshua left his dorm room and walked into a lake. A passerby found footsteps in the sand leading in. None led away.

He left his journal for Arjun. I need to change my major, he wrote. I am not an engineer. What was the point of solving all of those logic puzzles? It was fun, but did finding those answers really matter? I’m all used up, he wrote. Please don’t be sad. I am ready to be a part of the world.

*          *          *

My students gathered at Joshua’s favorite spot, a quiet space on top of a hill. A collage of pictures sat propped against a rock. We stared at Joshua’s many faces and tried to understand what cognitive power it would take to move him to the realm of memory.

Candle flames bobbed in the dark. Who teaches us to buffer the shock that death creates?

“They said that he was listening to this when he died.” Arjun played Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” At that moment, I was not sure if I could tell heaven from hell. And it scared me to think about Joshua believing that there wasn’t a difference. We stood, rooted together in the silent, penetrating absence.

Arjun hugged me. Thank you for being a part of our family.

*          *          *

Joshua wrote me a letter at the end of the school year. He thanked me for creating an environment of students who aren’t afraid to speak their minds. A yellow office pass fell out of the envelope. Leaving School Pass, it said. On the destination line, Joshua wrote: Going to College! It was dated with the exact date and time of his high school graduation.

I cried; it was the perfect gift. This is the moment I fought all year to prepare them for. Going to College! What did he find there?

There are certain places in the walls of the self that students open up for you. Teenagers remind me that it’s the struggle for authenticity that’s at the heart of things. It’s this struggle that keeps me returning to the classroom. It’s this struggle where I know meaning lives.

My final assignment for my seniors is to write an essay titled, “This I Believe.” One of Joshua’s friends wrote about her struggles to be a creative artist, while the rest of the world seemed to value getting good grades and going to school. In her essay, Kate wrote, “In the midst of senior year excitement, my friend died. I wasn’t surprised, because by this point, tragedy and sorrow weren’t that foreign, to me or to him. It was a different kind of death though, because it was by choice. But I believe life is about choosing. I could have chosen to sulk and drive myself into a darkness far deeper than anything I’ve experienced before. He could have chosen to live. But life is about choices. So I chose to accept tragedy and grow from it. He chose to escape his own tragedies and his ultimate descent into madness. I chose to pick up the empty pages of dreams I had lost and fill them with new dreams that hold hope and face insanity head on.”

I am not required to have all the answers. But I owe it to my students to lay my humanness down. If I know anything now, I know that we cannot shy away from our deepest selves. That is the only truth we can bare to one another. It is the greatest love we can give.

I think that’s the best choice we can make as teachers. In the midst of the common-core-high-stakes-standards-based-multiple-stress-pressure-system we’re in, we have to insist on asking questions. We have to validate and encourage each of our students’ personal quests for meaning. We have to honor the seeking, our hearts open to answers beyond design.


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