from “Walking on Water”
It’s the first day of the next to last week. I say, “I have one final assignment for you.”
“I want you to walk on water.”
They still wait. They have no idea what I’m talking about.
“Ready to get on with today’s class discussion?”
“No--” one says.
Another says, “But--”
“Oh, yes, of course,” I say. “There’s one other thing. Afterwards I want you to write about it. Sorry for the confusion.”
Somebody says, “I don’t get it.”
I answer, “You will.”
The same fellow as always says, “But what’s the point of us doing this?”
“You’ll get that, too.”
I try to get on with class, but they won’t let me. They keep asking what I want them to do. I keep answering the same way: I want you to walk on water, and then write about it. Finally, a woman loses patience, and says to the class, “Everybody here knows the story of Jesus walking on water, right? What’s the story about? It’s about someone doing something impossible.”
One of the more literally-minded students responds, “But if it’s impossible, we can’t do it.”
“That’s the point,” the woman responds. “He wants you to do the impossible.”
“That word--but--is why you can’t,” she says, manifesting the trick of good dialog.
“Only Jesus could walk on water,” says the Christian.
“That’s not even good theology, much less psychology,” says the woman. “The others could, too, so long as they didn’t doubt they could. So long as they didn’t get self-conscious--”
“So long as they kept looking at Jesus,” countered the Christian.
“I’m not a Christian, so that word doesn’t scare me. The metaphor of the story is that once you look inside and figure out who you are--and once you begin to believe in your abilities--you find yourself able to produce--create--amazing possibilities you previously couldn’t even imagine. Like walking on water.” She looks at me: “Is that about right?” I nod, and say, slowly, “I think--”
She cuts me off, “It’s even better, because once you get to that place where you can walk on water, you suddenly find yourself on solid ground where before you thought there was no support. And this support comes not from you, but from everything around you. Once you begin to act from this place, the whole universe conspires to support you.” She looks back at me, pauses.
I say again, “I think--”
But again she’s off and running, “And that’s really what we need. The whole system is fucked. Everything is fucked. The planet’s being killed. We’re going into these awful fucking jobs we all hate, and what’s required of each of us individually and all of us collectively is a miracle, or a million miracles. And that’s what Derrick’s asking of us, to go out and commit some miracles, and then write about them. That’s not too much to ask, is it?”
I say, “I take it you’ve thought about this topic a little bit.”
“Just a little bit,” she says.
The papers come in. They’re good. A few people--members of the Literal-Minded Club--put an inch of water into bathtubs and take a step across that. A couple more cross frozen ponds.
But many students accomplish miracles. Not of the parlor trick variety, accomplished with the aid of quick hands and misdirection; nor Godlike miracles in which we can safely disbelieve because of our notion that some great God lives in heaven and that no great and small hosts of gods and goddesses live on earth; nor the miracles that surround us and which no one has to accomplish--the inspiration and expiration of every breath, the formation of fog and its condensation on the tips of leaves, the stripes of black and brown on the back of a ground squirrel, its quick movement, its conversion into food for other creatures after its death, love. Instead the miracles they accomplish are no less than these and so much more because they are simple acts of courage and of stepping away from who they thought they were before--and who they were before--and into who they are now. One woman ends an abusive relationship. Another acknowledges her bulimia and seeks help. A very shy woman asks a man out on a date: he says yes. A Japanese man tells his parents he doesn’t want to be an accountant, but instead an artist. Another man says that all of his writing that quarter counts as walking on water; writing had always before terrified him, but no longer is that true. Another says the same about thinking.
The people in my class, including me, do not need to be taught. We need simply to be encouraged, to be given heart, to be allowed to grow into our own large hearts. We do not need to be governed by external schedules--by the ticking of the ubiquitous classroom clock--nor told what and when we need to learn, nor what we need to express, but instead we need to be given time, not as a constraint, but as a gift in a supportive place where we can explore what we want and who we are, with the assistance of others who care about us also. This is true not only for me and for my students, but for all of us, including our nonhuman neighbors. We all so want to love and be loved, accept and be accepted, cherished, and celebrated simply for being who we are. And that is not so very difficult.
The tragedy of industrial schooling is made all the worse by the promise of education, the promise of drawing us out, leading us forth. As midwives attending to the births of their students, teachers carry an awesome responsibility with correspondingly awesome possibilities. Education, if it is to be worthy of its true meaning, can, should, and must be at the forefront of resistance to the routine dehumanization of our whole industrialized mass culture. That is possible. I have done it. So have others. But it is rare. Too many teachers, like too many students, too many workers at too many war manufacturing plants, too many writers, too many politicians, too many people who could be human beings but who have been trained by their schooling and by their work and by their pursuit of money and their pursuit of acceptance and by their very real fear of being who they are step away from this responsibility, and in so doing lead themselves and those around them ever farther from their hearts, and lead us all ever closer to the personal and planetary annihilation which is the looming endpoint of industrial civilization.
If one of the most unforgivable sins is to lead people away from themselves, we must not forgive the processes of industrial education.
There is, however, an alternative. Or rather, there are as many alternatives as there are people, and most especially as there are people engaged in active, thoughtful relationships with their communities, which includes their living landbases, the land wher they live, the land that supports and nourishes them.
I’ve heard it said that within our deathly culture, the most revolutionary thing anyone can do is follow one’s heart. I would add that once you’ve begun to do that--to follow your own heart--the most moral and revolutionary thing you can do is help others find their hearts, to find themselves. It’s much easier than it seems.
Time is short. It’s short for our planet--the planet that is our home--that is being killed while we stand by. And it is even shorter for all of those students whose lives are slipping away from them with every awful tick of the clock on the classroom wall. There is much work to be done. What are you waiting for? It’s time to begin.