I recently read a fantastic essay by Jessica Lahey, of The Gift of Failure fame. A talented teacher and writer, Lahey brought attention to the ultimate benefits of those times in life when we – all of us – fall short and even fail. In “The Breathtaking Potential of the Attosecond,” her essay in a wonderful new collection edited by Lindsey Mead, On Being 40(ish), Lahey tells the story of working with students who could not bear to write their own.
The essay is about, among other things, the way that time becomes condensed or stretched out when we are teaching. Lahey describes how there was never enough time when she was a young teacher, but that as she honed her craft, she became more efficient. “Time, after all, is a specious construct in education,” Lahey reminds us. “The units that govern a teacher’s day are an administrative fabrication. A school “hour” measures only fifty minutes, mortared together between wasteful, messy layers of students settling in and shuffling out… the meticulous planning of August always gives way to survival mode by November, and come June’s final reckoning, the math never, ever checks out.”
Citing the work of Alan Burdick, Lahey writes that as people and especially as educators, we don’t live “in time,” but instead “calculate and allot” it. Further, our emotions steer our experience of it: “Time flies, races, or crawls depending on our emotional state.” Such was the case for Lahey when she began teaching at an inpatient drug and alcohol rehab program for teenagers, where she tried to help them work through their personal histories such that they might write about the past in order move forward. When she lost her temper and directed a student who would not complete the work to leave the classroom, Lahey describes experiencing time moving at the breakneck speed of the attosecond. Powerfully, she describes how “that heartbreakingly short interval between before and after is all it takes to demolish a student-teacher relationship” and bravely shares more.
“Alexa was my student for another two months, but I never really got to know her. When I got angry, I lost the ability to empathize with her, to make time for her. I failed Alexa three years and a couple of hundred students ago, and in that time, I’ve learned how to capitalize on the vast promise contained in the shortest intervals, even when those moments are filled with anger, venom, and rebellion. If I’m present enough, and empathetic enough, an attosecond can expand to contain multitudes, to encompass their painful past and shape our possible future together.”
I don’t think the experience of teaching – the joyfully expansive moments as well as the too swiftly lost, never to be regained moments – has ever been more brilliantly captured in writing.