From “Total Eclipse,” by Annie Dillard (read in The Next American Essay, ed. by John D’Agata):
We teach our children one thing only, as we were taught: to wake up. We teach our children to look alive there, to join by words and activities the life of human culture on the planet’s crust. As adults we are almost all adept at waking up. We have so mastered the transition we have forgotten we ever learned it. Yet it is a transition we make a hundred times a day, as, like so many will-less dolphins, we plunge and surface, lapse and emerge. We live half our waking lives and all of our sleeping lives in some private, useless, and insensible waters we never mention or recall. Useless, I say. Valueless, I might add – until someone hauls their wealth up to the surface and into the wide-awake city, in a form that people can use.
This, of course, is at the most basic level. We teach children many things. No ELA exam tests consciousness, knowing engagement with the world, 90% of what we do in school is just swag when you look at this level. Yet. This week in advisory, the children estimated the hours per year they spend watching TV. The number, for one of my most motivated, hard-working students was in the low 2000’s, something like 80 full 24-hour days of her life every single year. It’s not that TV’s bad, I told them, but think about all those days, gone forever, and what you could have done with them. Wake up. Be conscious. Engage. Choose.
Friday, nearly the end of the day, difficult class, analyzing weather data for the week, meanwhile the weather goes crazy outside our windows. The rain turns to hail. The kids want to run to the windows. Finish this activity, I tell them, and we’ll spend a minute or two at the windows. Then lightning, and thunder. A girl screams. Melodrama is the currency of sixth grade. The sky is dark; it feels like night in the classroom. I teach them to count between the lightning and the thunder and calculate the distance of the storm. They go back to the weather reports. I’m speaking when lightning flashes again. One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, at first it’s three or four children but pretty soon it’s the whole class, five-one-thousand, six-one-thousand, my sentence suspended unfinished in the air as I join them in counting, seven-one thousand, eight-one-thousand, nine-one-thousand. They race to do the math, the decimal division that they really just learned this year. Answers are shouted out, the storm is 1.8 miles away. We return to the weather reports, we finish the work, they rush to the windows. This hour, though or perhaps because it is messy, they are alive, conscious, awake. They know how far the storm is, it’s almost elemental.