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Dancing Towards Uncertainty

How to encourage students to remain uncertain for just long enough. Brandon is one of the brightest students to ever take my...

How to encourage students to remain uncertain for just long enough.

Brandon is one of the brightest students to ever take my class. And while I'm pretty sure he didn't finish a single piece of art all year, he certainly gyrated his way around the room enough times to make up for it. He is not a great dancer-most people would never think to call what he does "dancing" at all-but when the spirit leads, Brandon most certainly follows.


Brandon is a study in contradictions. Although he rarely seemed to be paying much attention, when we reviewed art history during the final quarter, for instance, he remembered the name of almost every piece of art and artist we had so much as glanced at. And while Brandon did not have a formal education of any kind until the fourth grade (his parents were content to let him run around in the woods until then), he still managed to get higher scores on more AP tests than any student in the history of our school. Brandon attributes most of his academic success to a steady intake of performance-enhancing drugs. But he quit taking those drugs this year and still managed to dominate the AP landscape. Next year, he is supposed to be attending an Ivy League school, where, alongside other young people just like him, he will learn to run this country.

So why is he so confused? Why did Brandon spend most of this year bouncing off the walls and agonizing over what would seem to be a pretty clearly-drawn path?

I am not really sure. But I think the mushrooms might have something to do with it.

I met Brandon two years ago, on my first day as a teacher. He came into my mentor's classroom and started to passionately expound on what it took to grow edible mushrooms. He seemed to have an almost encyclopedic knowledge about the things, and with wild gesticulations and a glint in his eye he poured piles of fungal facts all over this other teacher and me. As he was at last winding down, I asked: "Did you have to do this for a class over the summer?"

No," he replied, shaking his hands in front of himself and then pirouetting to make sure I got the point, "I'm just fascinated by mushrooms. They're so amazing!"

This year when Brandon walked into my classroom for the first time, I asked him about the mushrooms. He raised an eyebrow, paused, and then said, "No, I haven't been into mushrooms for a while." Then he proceeded to tell me about the six other hobbies he'd picked up and dropped in the interim.

I know what you are thinking. You're thinking that it wasn't just salad mushrooms that Brandon was busy growing-and you may well be right. I do not believe, however, that it was the mushrooms that caused Brandon's confusion. I think Brandon is confused because he is living in a confused world. Like most young people, Brandon is searching for a passion equal to the raging tornado of yearnings that perpetually spins inside him. Yet he knows that as a privileged member of a privileged class he is gifted with a lot of potential and wants some meaningful way to live it out, but what he sees with his razor-sharp mind is a collapsing house of cards. While I am glad he quit the drugs that were, in his own words, "taking him places he did not want to go," without them, Brandon is left wondering why he has bothered to conquer the academic mountain in the first place. He wants his life to matter, and is told that the way to do that is only to keep on climbing.

I found it hard, this year, to encourage him in this pursuit. Although I know that education is usually a path to more options (like, say, being a high school art teacher), for me, college was mostly an excuse to avoid growing up and taking on responsibility. Still, since it is my job, I told him to stay in school, work hard, and climb that ladder on up towards the warm, bland sunshine.

Brandon, however, does not want the ladder. He wants to dance.

And despite the dictates of my job description, I want to join him. I, too, am tired of the coldly constructed educational approach that demands a clear answer to every question. I believe that before growth can happen there has to be a period of doubt and uncertainty. Certainty kills innovation, and while I need a degree of certainty in the surgeon poking around in my brain or the pilot flying my airplane, I also hope that somewhere along the line they have learned how to be creative. When problems develop for which they have been provided no textbook answer, I need them to be able to step back, take a breath, and lose themselves in the dance of the moment.

Someday, I believe, Brandon will find his certainty-a long-lasting passion to which he can apply his considerable gifts. For now, however, I hope he keeps on dancing, living in his moment of doubt long enough to find that someday, when he really finds his passion, he will remember the dance.

Josh Barkey is a high school art teacher in North Carolina.

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