The Sound of One Man Waiting

Someone passed along an article to me about cell phones at school:  maybe, the article suggested, schools should let students use cell phones on occasion.  After all, it’s so much trouble for teachers to stop the lesson and confiscate cell phones.  And it’s so much a part of what they do and who they are, to be continuously interrupted and constantly available.

What I wonder is: if everything is open to social interruption, then how can we concentrate?  How can we really listen?

Television and the internet, while lots of fun, habituate me to the attention span of a two-year-old.  Religious practice helps extend it.  Religious practices often encourage you to concentrate– ten minute meditation, sermon, reciting a ritual.  It is clear that time in a religious space has been set aside for a narrowed, and paradoxically, encompassing, mindset. 

A lot of people don’t go for religious practice.  Close attention to art and nature can be great concentration practice, too.  You are practicing focusing and listening, at least with the more demanding, extended experiences.  Lots of different things would work: long hikes, fishing sessions, quality time with one painting, or fifteen minutes hearing a theme develop and morph.

I think when people say, “I want to be beautiful, and I want to be in love,” they are actually saying, “I want to be listened to.”  It’s just that being beautiful and loved get you more attention in our human hierarchy, so it’s confusing.

It’s intoxicating to be listened to, and it’s challenging to listen.  It’s hard not to think about your own reactions and what you are going to say next. 

Like most of us, I have a few people who want to be able to get a hold of me.  I understand that, and I am annoyed when I can’t reach someone.  Still, I hate that absent people can trump present people. 

When I am with someone, having coffee or whatever, nothing formal or huge, I still want to be with them.  Everyday moments listening to everyday stories are what all relationships are built on. 

I watched “Chinatown” recently, and I loved how Jack Nicholson’s character went to see some guy at his office, and then had to wait for the guy to come back from lunch. 

Can you imagine?  Waiting for someone to come back from lunch?  No one knows where he is.  No one can call him.  The guy’s just out.  And instead of pushing through it, Roman Polanski makes you wait, wait, and listen to his character wait.

The Balance of Power

Today I was asked to sub for a Shakespeare class.  The kids were supposed to watch “10 Things I Hate About You,” which meant I could sit and do whatever the hell I wanted while they were entertained.  That’s a good way to earn twenty bucks. 

I was happily checking my email and reading “Catcher in the Rye” so I won’t have to lie so baldly when my students are reading it next quarter when the damn movie ended.  Just ended.  Apparently they had already watched most of it  the previous day.

I looked at my watch and there were 20 minutes left in class.  I’m not trying to set up a 20 motif here, this is actually the amount of time.  Way too much time to say, ah, just hang out a minute, and class is almost over.  At least, for me, in my compulsive workhorse mode.  The minute those kids saw I was their sub, they moaned, “Oh no!” and the seniors said, “I thought I’d never have to see you again!” in the half-agonized, secretly pleased way of adolescents.

So I stood up and got them to spit back the plot of “10 Things,” and then explained about how “The Taming of the Shrew” was sexist, and what a shrew is, and why taming a woman is offensive.  All this in between, and sort of half over, their side conversations and yelling at each other and staring into space apathy.  I could win about 1o seconds of auditory real estate in this room.  If one of my words was “race” or “sex,” I had a better shot.

I got them to vote on whether the play should still be performed.  It came out 50/50.  I got the smartest kid in class to tell everyone that race is addressed in Shakespeare, in “Othello,” and he mentioned that they refer to Othello as a moor, and and as “uncircumcised.”  Apparently that made an impression on him. 

But they never really shut up completely, and as I moved the discussion to race, and another kid declared that Abraham Lincoln had slaves, someone else said, “Why are we talking about slaves?  What does that have to do with Shakespeare?”  And for the hundredth time, I asked, “How did Lincoln have slaves?  He lived in a free state.”  “He just did.  Those other white people didn’t care.”

Right before the bell rang, I stood up in front of the door.  Most of them were used to this trick.  I said, “I’m just going to add one thing.  But not until everyone’s quiet.”  This took a minute.  I wrapped up with something about considering the culture of the author, and how we should accept them or deal with offensive parts of their work, and how they would look at this more in their college English classes, while they thought about what they were about to have for lunch, and then I let the floodgates open. 

“You the only one I ever heard talk about slavery and Shakespeare,” one of the sophomores said.

As I walked upstairs, I was annoyed and worn out.  A kid on the stairs had her cell phone out.  I held my hand out to confiscate it.  She refused to give it to me. 

I encouraged her to do this the easy way and not get into deeper trouble, and she said, “I’ll do what I want,” all snotty.  This kid was on track to be valedictorian of her class, and I’ve been worried about her getting careless and rude. 

So I asked her to step into the chemistry lab.  “This isn’t like you.  This isn’t who you are,” I began. 

“You don’t know who I am,” she said.

Well, fair enough.  “I know you have made lots of smart choices in the past, and I’ve noticed that your choices lately are not smart.”  This seemed worth a try.

She looked at me, infuriated, and I thought, Well, whatever.

Then she gave me her phone and stormed off.