My students are not used to hearing someone speak with such tenderness, with such fiercely protective words, about the nonhuman things of this world. It makes them a bit uncomfortable; they wiggle in their seats. I know that each of them really longs to find something to care about deeply. But they are still wondering, waiting for the thing that will claim them, like this living world has so obviously claimed me, their teacher. I cannot teach them their place, define their passion. I can only assure them that they do have one.
In some aboriginal cultures the entire community helps young people find their unique place in the world. Skills are explored, dreams are discussed, and the whole village leads each young person to the path of his or her life’s journey. This attitude makes wonderful sense to me, but unfortunately our young people get no such help today. I do not have the time or the energy to guide each of the one hundred students I have every semester for fourteen weeks, just a few days a week, a few hours a day.
Their parents want me to help their children find something they can be passionate about, and I do what I can. But I feel about as helpful as a cartographer wearing a straight-jacket trying to draw a map with a pen held between his teeth. My efforts to help them are crude. And while they wait to be claimed by a passion, many try to fill the emptiness with sports scores or hip-hop music or alcohol. The best I can do is to show them that what they are seeking is possible to find, and that longing for it is nothing to be ashamed of.
The most courageous thing a teacher of teenagers and young adults can do is to try to break through the cool demeanor our usual interactions require. Bare the depths of your feelings; show what moves you. In doing so you will expose yourself to ridicule; that is why it takes courage. You must be brave enough to bear the laughter.
The best teachers know this already, and it is not just in my classroom that students see a different, deeper, way of being in the world. Their literature teacher is moved by the poems of a certain poet, and they can feel some warmth from that fire themselves. They respect the admiration their philosophy teacher feels for a particularly brilliant mind; they sense the indescribable flood of emotion created in their painting teacher by a particular piece of art, or in their math teacher by an elegant theorem. They are familiar with humans celebrating the creations of other humans— a beautiful and good thing—but they are less accustomed, I sense, to seeing a human celebrating the nonhuman. Wonder? awe? respect? for a paramecium? a snail? a tree? I try to show them that these things, too, are worthy of praise, of rescue. Rilke says:
—And these things,
that live by going away, know that you praise them; fleeting,
they look to us for rescue, us, the most fleeting of all.
They want us to transform them completely in our invisible heart
into— oh infinitely—into ourselves. Whoever finally we will be. (63–67)
Emotion and poetry in a biology class make the students squirm. They whisper to each other: “Dr. Maloof is a tree hugger.” And they laugh when I tell them that, yes, I have hugged trees. When I tell them that I’m going to make them hug trees, too, I hear more nervous laughter. They seem almost afraid of the prospect, like I’m going to make them skydive, although I suspect that most of them would rather jump out of a plane than hug a tree.
When we go to the forest on our field trip I am true to my word and I do have them hug a tree. Not because I find tree hugging to be an ecstatic experience; in fact, to me, hugging trees feels silly. I have heard of people who had an epiphany while hugging a tree, but I’m not one of them. If you’ve never tried it, I encourage you to find out for yourself. So why make them do it? I think it is because “tree hugger” is a label. They have labeled me, just like the vitriolic radio talk show host, the CEO of the office supply store, and the chief of the U.S. Forest Service have labeled me. Now, because they have hugged a tree, they share the label. And they can see that the label means nothing. They are no different because they have hugged a tree. And yet these students— non–science majors who are taking a biology class because they “have to”— can no longer point derisory fingers at the “crazy tree huggers.” They will never again be able to use that term dismissively, because they too have hugged a tree.
You are now in on my secret. You know some of the other things I try to teach (passion, compassion) at the same time I am covering the official course curriculum (the classification of living organisms, the steps of photosynthesis, the workings of DNA). I take a risk when I admit that I am trying to teach more than just biology, but I am not alone. Other teachers have taken the risk before me. Parker Palmer, in his book The Courage to Teach, wrote: “As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together.”1 Yes, Parker. Whoever, finally, we will be, let us pray it is worthy of being passed along.