Teaching Habits for Life

by Robert P. Barsanti

We were all out of the water, while the sharks swam with the jellyfish. They could have been swimming with killer whales and mermaids, the fog was so thick you could only see one wave out to sea. On the other hand, the air remained warm and wet. Returning to Orange Street didn’t entice. So, for an hour or so, we would be grounded on the beach and left without literature.

Three towels over, under an umbrella and over a cooler, one of my former students was working her way through The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Even better, her daughter was face deep in The Underground Railroad. They didn’t look up.

When the sailboats finally race and the Boys and Girls Club has their party and the Suburbans with bikes on top start waiting at the boat, I know that the school year will engulf me again. My career has become a habit. I scratch the itch each fall, settle into the pattern, and release into the world in June. Someday, soon, I will retire and watch the school buses from the first tee. And still feel that itch.

I have been teaching long enough to see the results when the students hit forty. I have also been teaching long enough to realize I have about as much effect on the young as a lifeguard has on pool party. They come into the classroom, we have some fun and games, and then they move on to the rest of their lives. On a Saturday in March, they realize that they should have returned Moby Dick ten years ago.

In this case, I also know (because I was there) that the mother and child reading two blankets down, had little to do with me. Back when Mom was a student, I still believed in vocabulary books, The Pigman, and the Oxford comma. In one classroom, at the end of a hall, was a legend who spent two weeks teaching How To Be Your Own Best Friend so hard that the kids laughed and believed it. In the next classroom, a man taught pleasure reading. The classes would read The Stand or Raise the Titanic or Riddle of the Sands in silence everyday, then they would answer the handwritten (and misspelled) questions he wrote on the board.

And it worked. The kids read all of the books in front of him. They would grab other books for weekends and vacations. Not many essays, fewer vocabulary tests, and no discussion went on in that room. But they read. And they still do—on the beach.

If you practice any profession for long enough, you make the required number of mistakes that let you claim wisdom. I have taught literature that everyone should know, until I didn’t. I taught multicultural literature that represents a series of lenses until we ran out of money. Then I taught skills until they printed a 200-page book that listed them all. And I taught to the test. Now, this year, I think I will teach habits.

Goals frustrate. Goals tease. Goals disappear. Or, if you are extremely unlucky, they are achieved. You set a goal for yourself, whatever it might be, and it hangs in front of you, just out of reach and realization. When that goal slips by, it leaves a slime trail of regret and self-loathing. My mother wanted to lose twenty pounds her entire life, and each time the scale chuckled at her, she wilted. Her goals bullied her.

But a habit can be friendly. It just asks that you do one thing every day. If you make your bed every day (as the Admiral suggests), you start each day with something done and accomplished. You leave the bedroom with a spring in your step and a glint in your eye. You have taken a step against confusion.

Even better, it starts a virtuous cycle going. If you can make your bed, you can probably wash the dishes. And if you can wash the dishes, you can probably show up to the job site five minutes early. Each accomplishment brings another along for the ride.

Every morning, a woman starts walking on Newtown Road to the Rotary, on to South Water Street, and eventually to the Brant Point. As you might expect, she strides along and does not pause for windows, sunrises, or puddles. She walks up Hulbert Ave, she touches the gate, and then turns on her heel and walks back. Every day.

We live in a world where corporations want to hijack our habits. We feel the phone vibrate, look at it, see that some picture of a sunset got liked, and feel a lift. Facebook has hacked into my emotions. I smell the donut, want the donut, eat the beautiful Boston Creme, and get the happy that the Bake Shop provides. Something else scratches my itch.

But, if you can keep the businesses out, you can scratch your own itch. I don’t know how long it took the Brant Point Walker to establish her routine, but it is locked into her life now. It elevates, it ennobles, it enriches without chocolate frosting. Every day, by seven o’clock, she has done something worthwhile.

If my students can read for ten minutes a night, they step out on the road by themselves. Ten minutes can become thirty, and a week becomes a month. Percy Jackson becomes Harry Potter becomes Bilbo Baggins and they don’t need someone handing out pop quizzes and questions on the chalk board. They can wander instead of follow. They can imagine instead of study. They can ask instead of answer.

When they are forty, they may not have achieved their goals. Life often puts a stick in the spokes and sends you flying. We will need environmental engineers and registered nurses, but we will also need dads, Little League umpires, and English teachers. Not everyone can win the Super Bowl. But everyone can have a book on the bedside table and ten minutes to spend by yourself with the Ents in the Fangorn Forest.