On Supposed Moments of Zen

I don’t know much from “zen,” but I guess this would qualify as a moment of zen. It’s late July and the morning is unseasonably cool. In fact, as my wife said when she left this morning, it feels like fall. There’s a pretty nice breeze, which is making the leaves rustle, and it’s nice enough outside that I’m sitting on my deck with a cup of coffee, a pen, and a notebook. The view isn’t really inspiring, to be honest. I’m facing my neighbor’s house and the occasional glance has me wondering whose lawn needs more attention–his or mine. Which then makes me think of how this is going to be the perfect weather for cleaning up the yard later after I get back from my meeting with a local photographer about an ad in the yearbook. Plus, I have a podcast to edit, another to write notes for, the dishes need to be done, and I probably should take another look at planning for the upcoming school year.

But that’s for later. Right now, it’s a cloudy sky with peeks of blue, the sound of the breeze and the birds, the smell of the farm on the other side of my property (which is tinged with manure, but what can you do), the feel of the cool air, and the taste of a hot cup of coffee. I’m attached to moments like this. In some way, I always have been. When I was in high school, I would sometimes be the first person in first period on purpose so that I had some time to myself–that is, if I wasn’t finishing homework in the cafeteria or trying to find a safe bathroom. When I worked in offices, I tended to be one of a few people on the streets or in the building at the time.

When I get to my classroom each day, I tend to be early. And that’s not because I want to get in and get things done but because I like those few moments of silence and solitude before I launch into a hectic eight-period day. Appreciating these moments, listening to the sounds of and feeling the world around you is something I wish I could pass on to my students. There are some who I think already get it–I see them seek out a quiet space at the beginning of the day–but many who don’t. In fact, if you’ve ever been in a high school at 7:30 in the morning, you know that the presence of students can kill any moment of zen. I mean, it doesn’t help that my room is near the cafeteria so I get maximum student flow in the hallway, but on any given morning, I’ll be in my room spending a few moments in my head space and I’ll hear a voice so loud it actually makes me gnash my teeth because the moment is now gone and there’s no use in trying to get it back. I can’t tell you who it is or what he or she is saying, just that it’s loud. Very loud. Almost violently so, especially at 7:30.

I’ve been on the streets of Manhattan and Washington, D.C. at this time of day and never heard anything so jarring. And a quick glance into the hallway shows students talking so loud that people can hear them in another wing, earbuds in ears with the volume turned up so loud that I can understand every last lyric, and thumbs flying faster than the wings of a hummingbird. One day, I’m going to record this and play it to my students as a writing exercise–describe what you hear and how it makes you feel. But that’s something for another day. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from a veteran teacher. I was having a particularly crappy day (it may have been a crappy week for all I know) and he took me aside and said, “Find your center.” As I sit and type this up a good hour after writing it down, I’m glad I had the opportunity to not only do that today but to savor it as well.

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