Thoughts while observing a Year 13 English class.
Very little preamble here! The teacher, his beard and ruffled hair absolutely fitting for a professor of English literature, as fitting as his soft English accent, jumps right in. Wordsworth.
A student reads the three lines that form the epigraph to an ode:
The Child is Father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
The poem continues after these lines, Wordsworth is being a bit tricky here, since these first three lines are from an earlier piece of his own. The teacher reads the original aloud:
“My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
so it is now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is Father … “
The teacher reads it as one who has read lots of poetry, as a person fascinated by a single word, by the sound of its syllables as they are formed in the mouth, by all the shades of meaning a word assumes when all its speakers give it life.
The teacher asks the students: “How is it for you when you see a rainbow?”
I feel a pang of homesickness for Leysin, for my adopted corner of the Swiss Alps, for the view from the living room. In 15 years I have not grown tired of the mountain view, I’m still in awe. And now in this prep school classroom I vow anew, as I get older, not to forget to look, to be amazed, to feel the weight of all that rock for its strength and beauty.
The teacher leads the students in a discussion about the parallel structure of the three lines starting with So. A student comments on Wordsworth’s deliberate choice of verb tenses: past, present, and future. He is playing with the twist that is coming, that thing that a poem can do that science struggles with. He will make the child the father of the man, help us re-see the world, help us shift perspective, not by truth, not in a factual way, but the truth that comes from a love for words.
The teacher asks what technique is being used here, with this line in which the father is the child of the man. Is it a paradox? Students share their thoughts. One suggests it is a metaphor, that the line is connected to the rainbow. She comments on the capitalization, reads too much into it, perhaps. The teacher reminds students that capitalization rules were less standard during Wordsworth’s life. But yes, he says, the child, the Child, is perhaps closer to nature.There is perhaps a metaphor here. A student asks if Wordsworth knew German. I think: How can the teacher possibly know that? But the teacher answers that Wordsworth was familiar with German, and certainly influenced by German thought, but that he didn’t know German that well. German generally capitalizes nouns, the student is making connections, playing the detective.
It’s fitting in a school that “the child has precedence in this relationship,” to borrow words from the teacher, that the child is “above in the hierarchy,” as he writes on the whiteboard. While schools serve adults (it is their career, a significant part of their social life, their grounding, their paycheck), schools exist for the students, the Children.
Those who become the future.