One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child. (Carl Jung, brainy quote)
He paused in mid sentence, in the middle of a grade twelve class on MacBeth, “Oh look! That little sparrow is so beautiful, so delicate, so interesting and so amazing!” He walked closer to the classroom window, as all thirty of us turned our gaze out the window in shock, surprise, wonderment and innocence. How could we know then, back in 1958, that the moment would still be fresh in our memories, and deeply embedded in the vault of those experiences for which we are truly grateful, nearly sixty years later? Of course, we couldn’t and wouldn’t appreciate the spontaneity, the wonder, the glee, and the profound joy of that moment for that man, until long after his death, and long after our many graduations, commencements, trials, errors, triumphs and disasters. (For those who shared this moment, the man's name is Ken Fulford.)
That little sparrow would come to mind when we read Keats, ‘if the chickadee is plucking gravel on the window sill, I am plucking gravel with the chickadee.’ It would come to mind when we saw our first cardinal, our first oriole, and our first blue jay. And the smile on that teacher’s face, the glint in his eye, as he unpretentiously and unceremoniously guided his students beyond their little worlds, without their even being aware of what he was doing. That little sparrow would also come to mind whenever we were presented with another picture of the fragility of existence, a newborn baby, a struggling palliative patient, a wounded deer, or a recently divorced mother. Naturally, that little sparrow would jump into a tree on a landscape canvas in an art museum, as our bridge to the artist’s creative imagination. It would also leap off a branch with the blue jay that just startled us in our drive through the forest, as we delivered the mail.
And, intimately linked to that sparrow is the man, the teacher, whose bald head, broad smile, resonant baritone and rumpled brown leather brief case and wrinkled grey suit jacket would accompany every class in which I participated as instructor or as student for the rest of my life. His dilapidated green Mercury car would also careen around many curves on many mornings, reminding one of how he incarnated the absent-minded professor archetype, late as usual even for work. Inspiration, you see, does not always come from big shiny BMW cars, or Hardy Amies suits. In fact, there is more likelihood that a young person will recall, almost indefinitely, a warm, supportive and connecting moment, made by someone s/he knows and trusts, than some shiny object or symbol of wealth worthy mostly of merely a passing glance.
Other moments, of equal warmth creep back into consciousness:
· an invitation to Father’s night at the local Rotary Club, when I was a mere strappling of eight or nine, by a man who had (I learned later) been a close friend of my paternal grandfather who was deceased before I was born
· a dry comment from the grocery story boss at my first “real” job, as I panted an attempt to lift a case of Carnation milk from the basement to the landing half-way to the store level, “that must be Atkins with all that panting!”
· an invitation to an all-star Squirt hockey tournament in Collingwood, in the early 1950’s where “artificial ice” was in place (Our town had only “natural ice”….rather undependable and unpredictable)
· a handful of invitations to perform a piano solo at local Lions and Rotary Club Ladies Nights
· a welcome to intern in a local law office midway through undergrad, opening a previously closed door to students to experience the law
· an invitation to ‘co-host’ the annual campus formal at Western in 1962, featuring an unknown band from CBC, led by Chico Valle, and the campus newspaper ear that greeted the announcement “Who the hell is Chico Valle?”
· a private moment with a favourite English professor, after an especially poor examination, in which he inquired, “This is the most confused piece of writing I have read of your’s…do you want me to give you the credit or not?
· a recommendation from a college friend to do a qualifying year, and then law school….a suggestion I did not follow.
There is this thing about connection, about warmth, about appreciation that once seemed more prominent, frequent and without strings attached. What has happened that these exchanges seem so far apart, so infrequent, so missing from our daily lives? Is it the notion that we have slipped into a pattern in which we, and all those near us have morphed into functions, and ‘who one is’ has faded under the weight of ‘how one performs’…
We still encounter people in the shopping centre, in the mall, at the food court, at the doctor’s office, with rarely a word being exchanged. How we execute whatever it is we “do” in our lives, and how successful we are (based on a conventional curve of dollars, linkedin connections, facebook “likes” and twitter ‘friends’) is a matter of some import, although in previous lives, conversations were more about shared experiences of movies, or books or even the weather….
Today, not so much!
If we have conversations at work, they are usually encased in a veil of circumspection that reminds us to be ‘careful’ and to be ‘politically correct’ and to be calm without raising our voice, and to be non-confontational even if we are talking about a matter completely outside the work place. And the limit of those exchanges usually runs to about 30-45 seconds, permitting them to be and to remain detached, disconnected, and merely expecting minimal amount of participation.
In addition, there are often many interruptions as people check their cell phone, receiving or sending a text to or from a ‘significant other’…It is not only a matter of distraction; it is also a matter of not having to engage with another for any extended period, as if to engage would be too invasive, too demanding and too intense for an off-hand experience.
Little wonder schools have had to put boundaries around the use of tech devices, in order to focus the attention of students on the subject at hand.
The other intrusion is the underlying and not-so-incidental issue of personal security. This is an issue our culture seems almost fixated upon, and the fixation is not merely a curb in our blind walking. It is an impediment to our need for socializing, for warmth, for connection and for community.
And, as Martin Buber reminds us, from his perspective, our greatest sin is our failure to acknowledge every person’s deep need for community. There is no research that I know of that examines the degree of dependence of personal creativity and human warmth. In fact, there is a cultural and conventional argument that some would make that warmth (translate: human emotion, human compassion, human empathy, human connection) are the very stuff that impedes productivity, and complicates the healthy (translate: objective, detached, professional, rational and calm) climate in most interactive exchanges.
That grade twelve English teacher would be a highly complicating intrusion into our disconnected world; he would continue to scan the horizon for the unexpected sparrow, and he would remain open to the bizarre and the unconventional in a world saturated with its own fixations at a stampede of minimal stimuli, as if those stimuli could be translated into relationships.
What are the musical, artistic, unexpected experiences that imbed themselves in our individual and our shared memory and through that sharing become part of our collective consciousness?
It is the obvious erosion of that collective consciousness that seems to emerge from our multitude of stimuli minus the connections and the melody on which that collective consciousness is energized.
I miss both the English teacher, and the sparrow. And I long for a time when our grandchildren will have similar opportunities, not only for the acquisition of skills and competencies, but also, and more importantly, for the warmth that nurtures our creative imagination, our collective memory and our civilization.
We are participating in a kind of slide toward a destiny previously un-mapped and certainly not one for which we are prepared. It is not only the threat of an alternative reality, and the potential manipulation of that “ unreality” and the people in it by people like Trump and Putin that we face. Nor is it just the threat of a planet overheating and flooding coastal regions and threatening eco-systems and their flora and fauna; it is also the convergence of an accelerating change in technology and the cumulative stresses and erosions of all those dynamics on human beings and both their capacity for and their willingness and determination to seek out and to express, in an uninhibited manner, their deepest emotions and their reserve of warmth that, in the face of the other disconnectedness, could conceivably push us into a struggle for survival that, even in a limited envisioning, will not be “pretty”.