by Nicholas Baker, New York Times Magazine, 7 September 2016
One wintry mix of a morning, while I was in training to be a substitute teacher, I saw a textbook that was being used in an 11th-grade English class. The class was studying transcendentalism, and the students were required to read excerpts from an essay called “Nature,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was an unmethodical writer with low, puffy sideburns who liked to work himself up into paragraphs of rapture. When it came time for him to write an essay or give an oration — about nature, say, or self-reliance — he combed through his voluminous journals and pulled out choice bits that were more or less on topic, and he glued them together with some connective prose. For instance, in “Nature,” Emerson writes: “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball.”
In the textbook, next to this passage, there was a brief assignment printed in the margin. It said: “Review the elements of transcendentalism listed on Page 369. Which aspect of transcendentalist thought is reflected in Lines 12-19? Explain your answer.”
Isn’t that just about the most paralyzingly unrapturous question you’ve encountered in any textbook? “Explain your answer.” No, thank you. I will not explain my answer. My answer is my answer. I am a transparent eyeball. I am a huge, receptive visual instrument with a flexible lens, and I’m taking in the infinitude of all space and time and dragonflies and owls and life and roadkill and hydrogen gas. I am nothing and everything. I am bathed in air. I’m a carefree, happy huge shining slimy eyeball of weird wonderment. I can swivel in any direction. Any direction I look, I will find something interesting.
That’s the extremely interesting thing: Everything is interesting. Potentially. Sometimes it may not seem so. You may think a certain thing is completely without interest. You may think, or I may think, eh, dull, boring, heck with it, let’s move on. But there is someone on this planet who can find something interesting in that particular thing. And it’s often good to try. You have to poke at a thing, sometimes, and find out where it squeaks. Any seemingly dull thing is made up of subsidiary things. It’s a composite — of smaller events or decisions. Or of atoms and molecules and prejudices and hunches that are fireflying around in unexpected and impossible trajectories. Everything is interesting because everything is not what it is, but is something on the way to being something else. Everything has a history and a secret stash of fascination.
That was the basic idea behind the alternative public high school I attended in Rochester. It was called the School Without Walls — no walls because it’s a big world out there, and life is the great tutor. It was founded by a wonderful, jittery, smart, chain-smoking man named Lew Marks. We called him Lew. He was the principal. Everyone went by first names. Lew had been a hotshot English teacher but wanted to be part of a revolution in education, so he hired nine teacher-coordinators and set the thing up, and the school district said O.K. There was no entrance exam. A lot of people wanted to get in to the School Without Walls after they read about it in the newspaper, so the school held a lottery, and I was one of the lucky ones. I was there on my first day of ninth grade, on the very first day of the school’s existence, in September 1971. Every Wednesday, Lew held something called Town Meeting, where the whole school, all 125 of us noble savages, would meet with him and the other teachers and discuss the philosophy of education, the meaning of life and the problem of applying to college sans G.P.A.
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