A meditation on the first day of school

This is a honkadori that I love, based on a story in the Lotus Sutra in which a character doesn’t realize that he’s a bodhisattva, a Buddhist saint dedicated to saving all beings.

It goes like this:

before they realized
they didn’t need to cross —
were helping others across —
did they think you crossed it alone,
the ocean of suffering.

I like this for the first day of school, which is such a busy and emotional time for both teachers and students. For my part, I’m excited just to have the youthful energy in the space — teachers hanging out with teachers can be a pretty grumpy bunch. I want to meet my students and get to know them, laugh with them and understand their strengths and where they can grow. I want to try out my ideas for my classroom, and get into the steady and comforting rhythm of work.

In the midst of all that, I feel no small amount of anxiety, that can basically be boiled down to, “will my ideas work,” and “will everyone like me.” I fret, my students are depending on me, and I could let them down. I worry, I’ve worked so hard, and I could let myself down. I get the sense that I’m doing this all on my own, and that my effort will earn a pass or fail over the course of the year. (Is it any wonder I’ve become a teacher? We all find our work!)

That attitude is a little bit of my own psychological imprint (am I good enough? will people like me?), and a little bit of the cultural surround, in as much as teachers are judged individually for their work. We start at A and must get to B, by the strength of our will — and the singular outcome is the measure of (unlikely) success.

So I feel like this guy in the Lotus Sutra, all alone, trying to cross an ocean of suffering — not realizing the crossing needn’t be done alone — in fact it’s done already. I come to my students who have math living in them already — my work is to draw it out. They come to me looking for structure and adult guidance — my work is to hold the space for them, just to be there, really there. Everything else — pedagogy, politics, grading, math ideas, emails, parent-teacher meetings, where’s a damn photocopier that works — they come in their time, and there’s a community of peers, colleagues, friends, that can help me if only I’m willing to ask.

Everything to be done is present from the start. There’s nothing to do but drop all the ideas, pay attention, and respond compassionately.

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