Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dear Hilary, Love, Hilary (On the Discipline of Learning)

I tried this experiment in the month of May, when I wrote an advice column to myself. I asked the question (about dreaming) and tried to give an answer (it was incomplete). Today I'm wondering another question, and I wanted to share it with you. And of course, I'm inspired, constantly, it seems, by Dear Sugar's words of beauty and truth, truth that enters the room and sits there. And she inspires me, with the possibility of learning to listen to the quiet place and learning to live from it.

Dear Hilary,

Tell me a story about learning. Tell me about how and why and what the point is. I don't know why I study. I don't know why I read books about World War I and why I try to weave together Jacques Maritain and Reinhold Niebuhr. I don't know if I'll ever be able to understand what this is all about, these links I keep seeing between the Vatican and Italian politics and Catholic social thought and how the encyclicals were really so much more important that I ever thought they were. And what if I can't do it? What if I'm not smart enough, after all, to be a graduate student or to change the way a whole group of people think about religious and political history, or to teach other people about the things I think I know?

Tell me a story about learning?

I'm missing it

Dear I'm missing it,

It's the spring of my junior year of high school. I am in an adaptation of Cinderella. I am playing Cinderella, and I'm failing. Not miserably, exactly, but failing. The lines are stilted - word perfect from my ability to memorize, but they don't ache and dip and soar and build the story. And Holly, the director, calls STOP! She comes up to me and puts her face rightthisclose to my face. And she says, "Cinderella! Come on!" And she turns, acting out what she keeps hoping I'll do. She gets angry at Prince Albert standing there in his Burger King crown and his blue jeans. She looks out at the rows and rows of empty seats, wondering, looking for an answer written across the flicker of the faulty spotlight. She turns back to me, and says, "Again." I sigh, scuff my bare feet on the grey floor, feel the cold concrete in between my toes, and shake my hair behind my ears. I return to the foot of the stairs and look at Prince Albert with what I hope is a colder glare than before. We try again.

Again. And again. And again. We rehearse until I can screech my lines, until they've seeped into my blood and they are my words, my emotions. Until I have put enough of the art room charcoal on my face, enough twigs in my hair, and carried enough buckets of invisible water to be this girl. We rehearse until every movement is fluid and known, yet somehow miraculous too (because the joy of theater is partly this - that everything you practice becomes new every time you do it).

This is learning, sweetheart. In all its glory and all its repetition. The story of learning is the story of practicing asking questions and getting under the skin of the plays, the problems, and the web of ideas that tether us to everything from economic theory to the themes of the Renaissance to the importance of the 1930s Vatican in Catholic Social Thought. Learning is not about performance or achievement. No amount of degrees or plaques or carefully crafted opening paragraphs of a CV will make you a learner. No laundry list of published articles or book jacket covers or specializations or guest lecture invitations will do it, either. Learning is about moving towards horizons, pushing onward into unexplored territories, wandering in the parts of the past that catch you and the problems that can't let you go. Learning is me practicing screaming at the guy playing Prince Albert. Learning is you sitting in your classroom wherever you are asking, "Why am I doing this?" We're already in the midst of all of it. All the best of it. 

I never became a theater major. Sometimes I wonder why. I wonder why I didn't take that path and push that edge, push myself into that world. But learning is about being captivated by the possibility. Learning is slogging away at research and writing papers only two people read (you and your professor) and maybe not one other person ever reads it, but it doesn't matter because you followed the trail and it took you somewhere new, and you're changed because of it. And this is the point, though it's humble and seems small: you learn because the world offers itself to our imaginations and our observation, and it takes patience and time and practice to see it for what it is.

Learning needs discipline. Like learning lines and getting inside a character. Learning is practice, and challenge, and some days you'll go in circles and put your head on the pillow with nothing but questions. Lots of days and nights, in fact, years into the future. But the story is yours to write, love, and yours to create. You can fill chapters with what you learned about dating and marriage and loving another person. You can throw in lines throughout about why history matters (or environmental conservation or the German language). You can weave together in your life the hours of classrooms and exams with coffee dates and arguments.

So the only thing I can say about why you do it, why you study, why you are a student and a learner - because you've probably fallen in love with learning, and it has captured your heart, like Cinderella and theater and history captured me. Keep falling into love with learning. Keep practicing.

And then, write to me, and tell me the story.


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