Did I Miss Anything? (from poetry 180)
Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours
Everything. I gave an exam worth
40 percent of the grade for this term
and assigned some reading due today
on which I’m about to hand out a quiz
worth 50 percent
Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose
Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
a shaft of light suddenly descended and an angel
or other heavenly being appeared
and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
to attain divine wisdom in this life and
This is the last time the class will meet
before we disperse to bring the good news to all people
Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?
Everything. Contained in this classroom
is a microcosm of human experience
assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
This is not the only place such an opportunity has been
but it was one place
And you weren’t here
The Library of Congress maintains the poetry 180 project, and it is phenomenal – nearly every poem I’ve read from there is a gem, and if a high school student could discuss just one of them well, I would have absolutely no reservations about the future. One problem with continual ranting about limited government is that sometimes government does things spectacularly well; I think poetry 180 is an example, I do know some schools use this in their curricula (how well they use it, that’s another story). Some of you will immediately ask why a private foundation can’t provide something like this; it’s a good question and people who are [and more importantly, those who aren't] giving money to education privately should be asked why they’re not funding something like that (ahem. this blog. *cough*). I suspect if we ask that last question in earnest we’re going to find that a lot of us confuse “freedom” with “getting everything we want” and “instant gratification.” Even the way we conceive of our charitable giving is shaped by our desires, our fears, and we don’t worry about reading well or thinking through a problem as much as securing what one can as soon as possible.
Anyway, onto the poem. You’ll notice if you go to the poetry 180 site that the stanzas which begin with “Everything” are indented; the poem seems to be a teacher mulling his response to an oft-asked question, and yeah, I’ve asked this of plenty of teachers. There are six stanzas but various combinations of which “Nothing/Everything” stanzas go together. “Hands folded… in silence, for the full two hours” sounds like prayer and meditation; it goes more with an appearance of an angel than with the stanza immediately following it. Stanzas 3 through 6 seem to be a heck of a lot deeper than the first two, though. The teacher’s dialogue with himself hits something which causes him to think.
I’ll suggest that despite the almost-religious image of the first stanza, and the idea of 90% of a grade being “Everything,” what gets the teacher thinking is the distinction between “value” and “meaning.” The first two stanzas describe a student’s sense of value – Was I missed? What’s required of me to get out of this class once and for all? The teacher unwittingly, in describing how he would respond to a student those first two stanzas, brought up the question of meaning which is separate from the question of value. We may attempt to say that a teacher has a different set of values than the student, and is imposing them on how he reads the student’s question: there is no question of “meaning,” it’s the same thing as “value.” I think the two are distinct because we can easily see a teacher in his own life responding to necessities. He doesn’t want to be missed or fail the tests that life throws at him either. And we can go further and say that a teacher’s job is to be concerned that his students act properly toward each other and enforce standards directly relevant to the student. What separates the teacher in this case is that the teacher can ask what things mean. But asking what things mean is a suspension of reality: “purpose” is now clouded. The teacher is literally right to a degree in saying that the activities of the class are “without purpose;” it took me a while to realize that the best classes are the ones you prepare for ahead of time. In other words, all the skills that would be useful are explored and mastered on one’s own, and then you come to class not only as a kind of check-up, but for something more that you wouldn’t have discovered on your own (I know, I know, there are different sorts of classes with different uses blah blah. Trust me on this one).
The fourth stanza’s religious imperative is a response to the sense of value of the first two stanzas and not as cynical as it seems. It’s actually a description of what every student and teacher wants: united in purpose, all of us now have the truth and there is no need for any other exams. “Divine wisdom” lies outside the classroom but the classroom gave the indispensable means to achieving it. What was learned was obviously so valuable that the class itself is an obstacle. It must disperse; everything that could be learned in this setting was learned.
Our teacher’s thoughts have to move away from the myth of the fourth stanza; even if one is religious, one has to admit that nothing given in that stanza was real, even though it describes our expectations exactly. It describes our expectations perfectly because of its unreality: it promises immediate fulfillment in a task, and therein lies another trap modern education has fallen into. We think work and busyness alone are admirable; the truth has been revealed by the fact of the United States (“the land of opportunity”). We forget that a lot of people get jobs to get other people off their case; some of the most ambitious people I know aren’t employed but are working in other senses. We also forget that intellectual mastery is an entirely different sort of work than work itself.
The fifth stanza sounds almost Zen – a conception of religion alien to many of us in the U.S. If the fourth stanza is a Christian “Everything,” the fifth seems to be an Eastern “Nothing.” It marks the first time the teacher is thinking about the actual work the student does, and what the student brings to it and gets out of it. I don’t think there’s any knock on religion or Christianity here: the point is simpler. Confrontation with the Other pushes us to ask what we don’t know. The question of “meaning” is now divorced from that of “truth:” what is significant involves “presence,” but whether or not anyone will arrive at the truth is an open question.
Finally, a makeshift answer, a “90% is everything” sort – the last stanza emphasizes the limitation of the classroom (“mircocosm,” “assembled,” “not the only place”). “Query”/”examine”/”ponder” – the movement from questions to wonder occurs because of knowledge; this is a belief, a sense of the classroom’s value. We arrive at the teacher’s sense of value precisely because the teacher does not know everything but is curious what things mean. Knowing what things mean involves settling for the truth one can get: the whole is outside of one’s scope, note that questions can only be asked where there are limits. But that “truth” doesn’t yield “meaning” immediately, if ever. One uses “value” to bridge that gap, and “value” is perhaps even more limited. Does this mean the student is correct? Absolutely not – his “value” reduces life to being missed (Strauss’ “Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero:” what characterizes the tyrant is his want to be loved) and getting grades. The value of the classroom is an awareness of its limitation. Precisely because there are other places – the whole of life – the classroom is all the more important. People mock theorists as utterly impractical: in doing this, they advance one theory and see only one side of life.