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for i cannot swim

saturday's picture

“Don't you hate that? Uncomfortable silences. Why do we feel it's necessary to yak about bullshit in order to be comfortable? That's when you know you've found somebody special. When you can just shut the fuck up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.” (Pulp Fiction, 1994)



“Today, I’ll practice silence”, I tell myself as I walk into class, aware of every eye focused on me as I stumble into the last open seat, five minutes late. It shouldn’t be that hard, I figured, and it would do us all a favor. Fatigue weighed down my every limb, and I couldn’t even blame my tiredness on hard work, having given the required readings a cursory glance at best. It’d be for the best if I laid low for a little while.

By virtue of my academic training coupled with my own personal expectations, this became a far more difficult task than I had anticipated. Years of participation grades and tally marks on attendance sheets had quantified my classroom experience; the more words you leave in the space, the more you know, the more you’re worth. Even the most holistic grading approaches always account for this: are you sharing your fair share? Count up the posts, the attendance, the questions and comments and poetic revelations. Are you here? Are you here?

There’s a neat little thrill for me in exercising my agency. Defying education norms by choosing silence – and feeling like it was my choice! It was almost pleasant at first, watching discussions unfold and take shape around me without placing myself into the fold. This was a listening silence, filled with others words instead of my own. There is a joy in listening and gathering thoughts without relinquishing any of your own. This silence wasn’t a pause, or an omission. It was filled, it wasn’t empty, I wasn’t empty.

Then, with my attention momentarily lost, I felt my gaze begin to go inwards, disconnecting from the words around me but not settling entirely into my own inner dialogue. My senses were muffled and dulled. I felt entirely adrift, floating in space and I got the distinct impression that I suddenly wasn’t there, like I just one of the rumored ghosts wailing in the halls. The world spun without my interference. Everyone grew around me and I was suspended in time.

Pressure began to fill my chest, twitching my lips and clenching my hands

come on speak or you’ll look stupid –

I was overcome with the drive to do – make a move, an impact, to exist beyond my space in the circle. My words bubbled out of me, littered with qualifiers and apologies, unprepared and inarticulate, ending with an embarrassed stutter and decrescendo

oh jesus shut your damn mouth you sound ridiculous –

The class is shifting around me and I am left behind. Nagging feelings twisted my gut every which direction. If my mind is an ocean then the waters are dark and infinitely deep, quicksand quality preventing me from rising to the surface. It’s no wonder that the ocean is a personified ‘she’ – a separate mind and being with unconquerable whims and currents.

speak speak speak participation grade x comments per class - don’t just spout useless unformed garbage you’re wasting everyone’s time – you’re not contributing anything of worth you really should’ve just skipped today 

There are no bells to jar me from my reverie, but class ends all the same. I leave my seat, waterlogged, walk my same path up to my room, put on my headphones, and drown myself in unsilent silence, less of an ocean than a pool – artificial, finite, cleaned and drained. I thought of Emily Dickinson’s words then, from a poem curiously omitted from the class selections.

Silence is all we dread.
There’s Ransom in a Voice—
But Silence is Infinity.
Himself have not a face.

And I wonder to myself, between the white noise of the outside and the wash of words within, if silence can ever truly exist.


Anne Dalke's picture

I added the ED poem to that page!

This is a description of your classroom reality; is there a way to change it, make it more accessible? Are you interested in revising or dismantling systems? Thinking back through our readings...any solutions proposed? Is it possible for classrooms to adapt to different kinds of silence and speaking?

In class last week, you stepped off the grid created by the barometer--and so offered a model to others to do the same.

How to meet teaching goals and accomodate the variety of learning styles in any given class?

Jane Tompkins' piece is of interest to you; it rang completely true.

In your high school: citizenship and scholarship grades were separated (very interesting to re-think through Rankine and Tocqueville: this expectation of participation!). Remembering accountability sheets, here, from middle school....

What would help you flourish in school? Anything that others can do? No, you think it's all about Margaret Price with this question in mind?

Where you might go with this paper....thinking about citizenship in school! Look up the portfolio guidelines on our cluster homepage.