Classroom teaching is a physical, breath-based, eye-to-eye event.Listening to Margaret Edson talk about her love of classroom teaching, it's not hard to understand her success as a playwright ("Wit" won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize and was filmed in 2001 by Mike Nichols, a movie the critic Roger Ebert recently mentioned as one that hurt too much to watch now that he's had cancer himself).
It is not built on equipment or the past.
It is not concerned about the future.
It is in existence to go out of existence.
It happens and then it vanishes.
Classroom teaching is our gift.
It’s us; it’s this.
Don't just read her speech -- watch her perform it. Her delivery is dramatic, poetic, and funny. (I've already suggested her as a speaker for a TED conference.)
Her emphasis on the importance of the face-to-face interaction between teachers and students reminds me of one of my favorite poems -- "Did I Miss Anything" by Tom Wayland -- subtitled, "Question frequently asked by students after missing a class".
Edson spoke at Commencement Day at Smith College this past May -- her alma mater, and mine, which is how I came across her speech -- in one of those usually boring email bulletins. Such graduation addresses aren't always so memorable, though two others I've bookmarked are: JK Rowling on "The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination" at Harvard this year, and the comic writer David Sedaris at Princeton back in 2006.
Rowling's comments on the benefits of failure -- real failure -- makes me think of the need to welcome and recognize risk in our lives (read The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb).
Similarly, her comments on imagination -- that "what we achieve inwardly will change outer reality" -- reinforce Edson's message that it's the journey, not the arrival, that counts in life. Edson claims she wrote her Smith college application essay on the theme, via Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Montaigne. I've always preferred Cavafy's expression of it in the poem "Ithaka".
Edson is passionate about her job as a kindergarten teacher and considers giving children the power to read as the best way she can change the world.
"Reading and writing is power--the thing that gives you the most power in your whole life. I like being part of students acquiring that power. I like handing that power over."