In the Classroom and the Snowy Wood

The student stands in front of the class panicking. She is a finalist in our school’s Poetry Out Loud competition and Robert Browning’s words seem to be stuck in her mouth.She is unable to move on from certain linesstarting and stoppingand it’s her third attempt to get through the poem. The room feels heavy with the weight of sympathy and discomfort.

I, too, am aching, remembering my many moments of agonizing during speeches. I can distinctly remember that feeling of having no air to breathe, the irrepressible shaking spreading over my body, the sensation of being outside of my own head. I know I’m not the only one feeling her pain and desperately rooting for her to succeed.

Suddenly, the student’s head drops. I‘m worried she might burst into tears and I brace myself, setting down my pen and scoring card. Instead of the sound of crying, though, I hear fingers begin to snap. Snap. Snap. Snap. It fills the room.

In my classroom, I have my students snap for each other after they share a piece of their writing. It’s a joke-y, cheesy thing a nod to Beatniks’ poetry readings in coffeehouses but something I hope will help them to support one another. I hope it’ll make the vulnerable act of sharing their own writing into something heartening or, at the very least, not traumatizing. Over the years, it’s become more than that.Sometimes it’s a way to express the profundity of someone’s insights; other times I catch students using it for each other as they nod in agreement.

But this? This snapping is the choice of one student to lift up another on the brink of personal defeat. It is the choice of the others to join in and raise her out of this moment of humility and despair. This is magic I couldn’t have anticipated. It’s heartwarming, golden, like the moment in a movie when the music starts swelling joyfully.

The snapping spreads through the room.”You can do it!” they call, joining together in their snaps. “You’ve got this!”

I think about this moment from time to time. How can I choose to put my fingers together and snap for someone to pull them out of a dark moment? How can I look around me and choose to reach out instead of turning inwards? It’s a choice I can make nearly every moment of every day. Lift up. Give your snaps.

—–

The inspiration and magic abounds in the day to day, too. I remember my parents telling me teasingly when I was younger that I wouldn’t like snow so much when I had to shovel it and drive it in, but my inner child continues to triumph. Snow is magic.

My favorite snow is the kind that falls in fat flakes and sticks to the branches. The beauty doubles when the snow is everywhere, and quadruples the next morning when the sun comes out and suddenly everything is glittering and golden.

We have a path that leads out of our backyard and into wooded acreage that is not ours and yet, I suppose, not not ours. On those rare mornings where the sun is glimmering through the snow-laden boughs, there is nothing I like more than to walk back into my own personal Narnia. 

The tracks of deer lead the way and it seems like every new view makes me pause in wonder. The evergreens seem more regal in their snowy dress. The gleaming ground shows tiny evidence of all of the abounding life, and the deadened sounds give me the same feeling of being in an ancient, empty church in Italy.

Today I am stopped in my tracks by the sunlight pouring through an oak leaf.

There’s a Native American story that was told to me as a child, the details of which I don’t really remember but think of often. A man was told he would die when the last leaf fell, but that last leaf never fell down, an explanation for why the oak never loses all of its leaves. It’s stuck with me but I don’t know why; maybe because I always choose stories over science.

Today I see that surviving leaf. It is resplendent in its resilience. The sunshine’s glow seems to mark the moment with extra significance and I stand here paying my homage.

I feel buoyed by its presence, by the transformation of something ordinary and plain into something dazzling and significant. This leaf persevered through fierce winds and brittle cold while every leaf around let go. It chose to battle on, even when all was hopeless, even through the hardest nights.

In the stillness of the snowy woods I am brought back to that special moment of snaps filling the classroom. It’s a moment that could be just like any other that has been made extraordinary.  My heart feels full with the sight of this glowing leaf, with the echo of those snapping fingers and cheers of encouragement.  Make the choice: hang on, persevere, lift up.

 

Words by Erin Smith.