“A bird does not sing
because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.” Chinese Proverb
In 2004, Barack Obama
introduced us to the phrase “The Audacity of Hope.” Audacity can be defined as
the willingness to take bold risks. His implication is that in this society
where it is so easy to feel lost in the machine, those who hope make a
The audacity of hope is
what makes a great teacher, especially a new teacher. She tackles the problems
of the world on the playing field of the classroom.
I propose another category
of hope, a way of thinking about hope which might resonate with more
experienced teachers exhausted at the end of each successive
school year. Or maybe it’s just my kind of hope.
bear with me as I offer to you one of the most overplayed poems in all of
American literature. Bear with me, because I am betting there is more to this
poem than you may have taken the time to think about before:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers --
That perches in the soul --
And sings the tune without the words --
And never stops – at all --
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard --
And sore must be the storm --
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm --
I’ve heard it in the chillest land --
And on the strangest Sea --
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
Most students (and many
teachers) interpret this poem in a syrupy-sweet kind of way: Hope as a birdie
with a beautiful, eternal song. Which is why 9 out of 10 students with black nail
polish hate this poem.
Hope is the thing with
feathers. I don’t know about you,
but here in Southern Arizona, “THE THING” is a roadside attraction along I-10,
so potentially terrifying that the billboard lettering evokes the title
sequence of a dozen B horror flicks and looks as though it reeks with the stench
of swamp-monster effluvia.
Dickinson could have
chosen to call hope a songbird.
But she doesn’t call it a “Bird” until the middle of the poem. Not only
does she put “Hope” in quotation marks (as though apologizing for writing about
such a sappy topic) but she calls it a THING (with feathers).
When I imagine a bird as a
thing, I think about the creepiness of seeing a bird close up: the scaly skin
around its small eyes, the unforgiving bone of its beak, its dry tongue and
dinosaur feet. With talons.
We used to have a parrot.
Rudy was friendly until I tried to put him away in his cage, and then he would
clamp my shoulder with his sharp feet, rip out my ponytail holder and start
nipping my ear. Not nice. He was determined to stay out of that cage. Obstinate
"Hope" artwork I made on a trip to the University of Arizona Poetry Center with students
My hope this time of year
is the same. The exhaustion, the disillusionment of the batteries of
standardized tests, the pressure to document every effort I’ve made to
intervene with every struggling child, the referrals I have to write because
students couldn’t keep it together for just two more weeks, the deadlines for
paperwork, signing off on evaluations that do not fully represent me, documentation
to potentially fail seniors, the grading. We’ve all got a similar to do list
that we might finish by the end of the summer if we actually accomplished all
The celebrations at the
end of the year are necessary. The people being celebrated deserve it. Great accomplishments have been
achieved, and many people will be missed. But (am I allowed to admit it?) there
are times when even these rituals feel like props to keep us going until the
end. Really, there is no time to
properly honor everyone. There is no time for anything but intensively trying
to get students the last of their feedback for the year in time to clean up my
room and making sure I’ve given everyone enough opportunity for success.
Dickinson’s “Hope” reminds
me of Annie Dillard’s weasel. In
an essay in which she asks us to live like weasels, she illustrates the
weasel’s wild determination by citing the image of one latching its jaws onto
an eagle and not letting go, and the image of the eagle soaring through its
days with the skeleton of the weasel still attached. I believe Dickinson’s view
of hope is similar. And I as a
veteran teacher am left wondering what to do with this dogged companion who
will not let go of my neck.
However, unlike weasels or the freakshow in Dragoon, through the storm this
feathered thing sings. The speaker in Dickinson’s poem does nothing to
encourage this thing. It perches
in the soul and hops out along our arm. It asks for nothing and sings sweetest
in the Gale. It keeps us warm, this thing, and never asks for even one little
crumb. We need not feed it or nurture it. It exists because we are alive. It is
a thankless job for a feathered thing, and the speaker of Dickinson’s poem can
only acknowledge its unfailing song.
Even the least syrupy
sweet among those of us who work with teenagers must acknowledge it. Somewhere
in there, amongst the muscles and bones, the stray bolts and metal pins, around
the worn edges of our battered teacher souls, even this time of year, is a
thing. It’s a thing that keeps us going.
I look forward to next year, and even to tomorrow, when I can laugh with
my students about how we are all ready for summer. Laughter which comes because
even though we are ready for a break, we know the struggle to become ourselves
continues. We and our things will return to teach and learn another day. And we
will hope for more.
After 17 years, I am not
pollyannish about education; however, I am not cynical either. I
can’t see my thing with feathers ever going anywhere. It perches in my soul, and sings the tune without the words
(See? It doesn’t even know what it is trying to say!) and never stops at all. I
didn’t ask for it. But if it ever, in Extremity, abandons me I will know it is
time to leave the classroom. I
can’t claim that my kind of hope is audacious, or even eternal. But I am grateful that it is obstinate.