By Kathy Curto
It’s the morning rush hour and I’m on the 6 train heading to Union Square. A young woman pushes her way through the doors of the subway car and plops into the seat across from me. I’m charmed instantly—gold metallic eye shadow, velvet burgundy bellbottoms and a black wool beret that has not one speck of lint on it. She takes out a little book with turquoise swirls and stars that speckle the outside cover which is also gold and shiny. I think it’s Rumi but I’m not sure. Either Rumi or Neruda.
I smile and my thoughts move in two distinct but parallel directions: to the power of patience as a tool for learning and to Kate, a classmate of mine back in graduate school.
Kate was also someone who could pull off metallic eye shadow and who I could count on to walk into class wearing outfits that sang songs of freedom, risk and liveliness, somehow making me feel nostalgic, refreshed and proud to have grown up in the 70s all at the same time. I suppose this is what happens when you go back to earn an MFA at forty- three years old while holding down a teaching job and answering to four people who call you Mom. I was exhausted and my “Small Coffee: Black” habit and drinking in of Kate’s whimsical combinations of textures, prints and solids was all I had to stay afloat on some days.
Kate’s creativity, her charisma and her good instincts extended way beyond mustard-colored cardigans and matte lipstick that might make Bardot jealous. She was a gifted writer and a classmate who took her time: in her writing, her speaking and her critical analysis. Her style and approach to the work were mature beyond her years and I marveled at what her smooth, unaccelerated pace seemed to produce: clear, deep, searing feedback about the readings.
We exchanged emails last month after a long lapse and I learned that she’d recently acquired two things: a marriage proposal and an adjunct teaching job at a community college in Oregon. I smiled when I read the note. First, I found myself trying to visualize whether she’d wear blue or red shoes to her wedding. Then I thought about the teaching part. And, again, about patience.
Many of us go way beyond writing in the writing classroom. Most times in my class even before we write, we talk: about the literature we read, about our own life experiences and about how we find meaning and connection between the two. Eventually I ask the question: so is this material accessible to you? Initially, when I use this term some students look confused and their expressions seem to whisper to me: How can a piece of literature or someone’s story be accessible? It’s either in front of me or it’s not, it either exists or it doesn’t, it’s available or it isn’t. And it is not a surprising reaction given our in-the-moment, find-the-answer, show-me-the-photo culture. We want to read, listen, see and decide, all in a matter of minutes, even seconds sometimes. Maybe this is why Kate’s unrushed, mindful style was so refreshing and necessary in the midst of the hurried and harried cyclone that was my life during that two-year stretch. I sharpened my thinking and waiting skills. I went to bed with the work–my own writing and the literature we were reading in class–on my mind and I woke up wondering about it, believing the whole time I would find meaning without the pressure to find rigid answers.
Writer and English teacher, Jessica Lahey, highlights the value of patience as academic capital in her Atlantic article “Relearning the Lost Skill of Patience.” She nudges educators to consider this approach when structuring lessons and assignments. The idea: “To teach students that answers don’t always come easily and require time to emerge from the noise.” This is particularly true in the writing classroom where reading and rereading material can be critical to one’s understanding and writing and rewriting critical to honing one’s craft. Lahey also cites the work of humanities professor Jennifer L. Roberts, author of the article, “The Power of Patience”, to strengthen her claim.
“Her intention is to show students that extended attention reveals nuances and details unavailable to the casual student or rushed museum-goer. She notes that “just because you have looked at [a painting] does not mean that you have seen it. Just because something is available instantly to vision does not mean that it is available instantly to consciousness. Or, in slightly more general terms: access is not synonymous with learning. What turns access into learning is time and strategic patience.””
Strategic patience? Sounds heavenly. And “access” (the powerful kind, that kind shifts our consciousness) can be gained with two precious offerings: time and the opportunity to wonder. Again, I imagine Kate–her wise ways and willingness to not only look but to see, as a classmate, a writer and now a professor. She’d love Lahey’s musings about using these approaches in her own English class:
“When I hand my students novels and other projects that require close analysis, critical thinking, and patience, I challenge them to rise above the the basic skills of word recognition and reading comprehension. I am asking them to wait. To keep reading, keep listening. To be patient and formulate their opinions based on all the evidence, and then comment on what they see and hear armed with more than a sound bite, a title, or a tweet. To spend the time and have the patience to do more than look at the world, but to see it.”
These days, both in and out of the classroom, it can be a challenge to slow down, listen closely, observe deeply and wait for access to whatever is in front of us—literature, a real life story or, as in the research that Jennifer Roberts conducted, a piece of art—to translate into real learning and the finding of meaning.
Which brings me back to the girl on the subway. I had access to my understanding of her because I found meaning in her style. Quite simply, she reminded me of Kate. It’s this sort of recollection and discovery that can happen on big and small levels but only if we let it. Who knows what is out there for us to see, deeply and fully, if we are patient, if we slow down and give our students the chance to wonder?