I spent a little time last night thrilling to what some of my past high school students have gone on to do with their lives since our paths crossed. Thank God for Facebook, and for students kind enough to friend their old teachers.

Check it out:

Ryan and Hays Holladay have formed Bluebrain, a groundbreaking musical project that could probably be booked by Phil Amoss in one of his amazing happenings. Meg Foley has a dance company; Andrew Markowitz is a photographer and Brandon Skall started a brewery. Both the Hessel sisters are in theater, and Lacy Simkowitz does design for an art museum. Even the folks who are working “square” are still hep: Emre Ersenkal’s a serious businessman in green energy, so I won’t link his hardcore rock and roll past here (I remember the day I taught him to swing), and Nigel Parkinson has a moving company while also making independent films.

This could go on all day. I am swept up in the swirl of seeing how people I knew at a brief, dependent point in their development have unfolded into autonomous actors in the world and creators of their own lives.

M.C. Richards discusses the “meristem” at great length in her work. That’s the cellular place where plants differentiate whether they are growing up or down; the living spot that never dies, but thrives even in the oldest among us (“We age toward youth, toward our growing tip…)”.

To work in a caring profession is to be with people at moments when the meristem is most visible and tender, to be present at the creation of something new. Doctors and nurses facilitate dramatic passage through pivot points of life or death. Social workers and chaplains hold people in galvanic moments when what comes next, or what to do about it, is still in flux. And teachers, in every moment, witness the imperceptible growth (and pulling back) that yields what comes later.

It’s teaching that’s best described by Richards’ model, I venture. Teaching is where the slow and persistent nature of growth happens. The compelling force that drove these students to become what they are becoming was engendered on my watch.

This isn’t pride speaking, though I am proud of what they are becoming, and especially thrilled to see their occupations correspond to who I think I knew them to be as children. It is more deep humility and gratitude at being around long enough to see some of the young people I was with grow into who they are, and begin to see what my role in the larger process was and was not. There’s a deepening of commitment to the responsibility of teaching that comes with this understanding, but also a gentle letting-oneself-off-the-hook of thinking that my work was – is – what mattered most in their lives.

That’s the twin reality I think most challenges caring professionals: to both know the impossibly high, moment-to-moment stakes of what one is doing, while at the same time not be crushed by them. To show up as one must, and keep oneself at an emotional distance – commit and pull back – all at once. Professional compassion, some call it, or negative capability: either way, its the core challenge of thriving in caring work, and one we almost never talk about.

I am also reminded of how extraordinary the place where I worked with those students was, and is: The Field School, in Washington D.C. Its steadfast commitment to the needs of individual students, and deep belief that academic, aesthetic, and kinesthetic experience are intimately intertwined, was the essential crucible for the remarkably whole lives these people seem to be living.

We never talked about M.C. Richards while I was there, but Natalia Kormeluk ran (and runs) its exquisite ceramics studio, and I am sure was familiar with her understanding of those connections. Richards’ question could have been hers to her students too:

Are you going to be an earthy person – practical, down-to-earth, and get-to-it? Or are you going to be a dreamer, visionary? We’re going to be both. And we can’t be – we shouldn’t be – talked out of it. We shouldn’t be talked out of it. I am both. Don’t tell me I have to choose. I don’t have to choose. I am “both…and.” I live in the crossing point.

Field prepares its students to be “both…and”: to thrive in the world while being true to who they really are. It remains one of the finest examples I know of what things look like in a school that is really giving kids what they need.

Leo Rosten taught me that to “kvell” is Yiddish for “to beam with intense pride and pleasure,” from the German quellen, to “gush or swell.” How appropriate that I get to swell with pride today from the life that continues to stir in the souls of these ex-students and so many others. Rock on, guys.

Thanks to quarterlifecuriosity for the image (not easy to find a picture for “kvell,” oy gevalt).

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