Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Yesterday, I spent an hour with my friend and colleague Sarah Michaels. Watching video of her newest research -- elementary school students in the South Bronx studying the Junior Great Books -- what struck me was how squirmy and full of movement the students were and how slowly the shared inquiry and discussion moved. The two classroom teachers featured had so much patience. They listened so carefully and so thoughtfully, ignored all the wiggling, and waited to speak until they could say something that would encourage the students to talk to one another in meaningful ways or could push the class’s thinking about the text forward.

I am a rusher, a New Yorker. A whole part of what was first my Cs talk and then my essay considered that, but much was later cut out. Originally, I told stories about IWCA in Savannah, where Jon Olson and I talked about what it is like for people who like to move fast and talk fast to live with people who move slowly and talk slowly. I wrote about the time three of the female grad tutors and I went to a work-study’s wedding (the only-women party of the Muslim wedding), and after drinking fruit juice and waiting hours for anything at all to happen, Rita finally said, “Oh, I understand, this is like weddings in Uganda. Everything will be late. Hours late. Like Africa time.” Suddenly we understood why no one seemed bothered by the wait. The wait was an integral part of the party. If you expected the party to pay off quickly, and you were hungry, you were disappointed. If you knew the party had not yet begun hours after the time the invitation said to be there, you were filled with the very best kind of anticipation.

I’ve been reading In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed. In a way, it’s not a very satisfying book. It’s too easy, too easy to accept that slow food, slow interactions with doctors, slower work and slow sex are answers to our fast lives. And yet yesterday, as I watched the fourth graders sit patiently and listen deeply to their peers struggle through the text, I came up with a new interpretation of why students crave more time in the writing center. Do we underestimate how few chances students have for sustained conversation, how seldom they have the opportunity to think their way through their thoughts without the pressure of all the other raised hands in the classroom? How seldom they get to say to a classmate, "I don't know what you mean, can you explain?"

Sarah's edited research video had captions pasted between sections. I noticed that again and again, those captions said “And this discussion goes on for twenty-five more minutes,” as if she herself couldn’t believe how much those fourth graders had to say. My friend Heather Roberts recently sent me to Thoreau’s “Walking.” I need to think about the way he resists the commodification of time, she says, the way he embraces the luxury of wandering.


At 8:26 AM, Blogger Tamara Miles said...

I've got to get that book about moving slowly in today's world; I think I'm going to like it more than you did, perhaps because I'm in the more slow-moving region of the U.S. In fact, a friend of mine (a New-Yorker) who occasionally works in South Carolina (this is how we became acquainted), told me recently that one of his favorite things about me is that my movements are "paced" and "methodical." I found this a fascinating observation and asked for clarification. He said that even in such simple actions as picking up a glass and sipping my drink, my movements are measured and smooth, as if I am somehow deeply interested in the action --- or, alternately, that I am disinterested and pondering something else weighty at the time. I did know that I often deliberately choose to go slower (walk more slowly, breathe more deeply, take the time to listen to someone), but I did not suspect that these behaviors are becoming ingrained in everyday activities, particularly because I can also become a little manic and buzz around like a bee. When I worked at Sears once, my co-workers asked if I were on Speed. However, they were fellow southerners, so perhaps my mania stood out. I can tell you this much: I appreciate it when people slow down and speak to me as if I am more than an interruption to their original plan. Also, when I am in stores, I will often say to the clerk, "I'm not in any hurry." It startles them and others who happen to be waiting in line. It's amusing, but then everyone usually seems to relax a little and I hope they are thinking, "Why am I in such a hurry?"

Carrying all this over into the writing studio, I have to believe that students who suspect I just want to get the session over with will be comforted and reassured by simple gestures that imply my full and lingering attention to them and to their writing.

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