Yesterday in my afternoon class we were discussing Part I of Fahrenheit 451. We were examining the paradoxes both in content and in style/ diction that Bradbury uses and why. In a conversation the day before, DS mentioned that this society, so bent on happiness, was really unhappy because you can’t be one without knowing the other.
I decided that today I would have the kids examine a taoist poem after talking about the yin yang symbol. What a perfect connection I thought between Bradbury’s opposites and the notion of wholeness, interconnectedness, and interdependence. But because I was finishing up some last minute grading, I couldn’t get to the xerox machine in time to make enough copies for the class. I could have used the overhead projector but it’s really hard to read type on it. (I think the filter needs to be cleaned.) So instead, I decided to recite the poem to them, asking them to write it out as carefully and legibly as possible, to focus on getting the spelling and punctuation as accurately as they could.
I read the whole poem to them first. Then I read each line– twice, each time slowly, specifying the capitals and punctuation where appropriate. Then, when I was finished, I read the whole poem to them again so they could check for any errors. This exercise was like a pedagogical experience from the fifties.
This class is my last class of the day. They are lively and energetic. Without malevolent intention, they can sometimes be too loud and can be very challenged just sitting still in their seats. But while I was dictating the poem to them (and this is the paradox about paradox), you could hear a pin drop. There were a few questions here or there—“Did you say a comma?” “Does possess have two Ss– in both places?” But somehow their queries were softer spoken than usual, even more polite. The lights in the room were not all on. That may have played a part in the calmer energy in the room. I was totally surprised that they were so focused and engaged in such a seemingly rote activity.
I think what happened is that it slowed them all down (it slowed all of us down) and as they wrote, they were actually thinking about the words they were putting to paper. As I slowly dictated a line, they were engaged in remembering the sequence of words and hence working to make meaning. (It’s easier to remember something if it makes some sense.) In concentrating their minds as I spoke the words and lines, they began to sense the structure of the poem as a whole as well. They were really listening.
OK, OK. I know that this may never happen again. But magically, as I finished the last read through, it was exactly the end of class. School was over. The weekend had begun—the students may have thought they left the room, but they had only just arrived.
Here is the poem I dictated to the kids, from the Tao Te Ching, a modern translation by Stephen Mitchell (hence the female “master”):
When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.