By Amy Spitzer
“Be the change.” I say this to my students all the time.
Hundreds of seventh and eighth graders have heard me imploring them to take up this challenge over the almost two decades that I have been teaching, and most of them have believed—at least for a little while—that they can, indeed, be the change.
I am very convincing.
Sometimes they try to meet this through their writing and sometimes they quite literally build something that will change some small corner of their world. Every now and again, there is a student who knocks it out of the park: crafting birdhouses to sell to benefit housing shelters in our city (Houses for Homes); raising awareness and money to support mental health initiatives locally; lobbying for and instituting a compost program in our middle school, alongside another student who lobbied for and changed our use of plastic ware in the cafeteria, replacing thousands of disposable forks, knives and spoons.
They focus their adolescent bursts of energy on change and, almost always, they are successful. In many ways, I can learn more from watching them than they will ever learn from me. I wonder though, about this call to be the change.
Change is everywhere and is a constant part of life, from the smallest, imperceptible changes in the natural world, to the giant shifts initiated by humans, intentionally and inadvertently. But amidst it all, there is a need to be present. Still. Calm. Immutable.
I ask this of my students as well: Be still. Look around. Notice. Write. Breathe.
So, which one is it? Or is it both? How can we hold two things at once; two things that are, by definition, in tension with one another?
This year has stretched beyond its twelve month allotment and the new buzzword on the block is languishing, defined by Adam Grant in a recent New York Times article, as a sense of stagnation and emptiness brought about by the prolonged pandemic. Languishing seems like it should be about resetting and recharging; but for me it has led to an overwhelming sense of failing at, well, everything, and that feeling of failure has extended into grief and loss for something unnameable that I don’t think I will ever get back. A word that connotes swinging lazily in a hammock on a summer afternoon seems to be in the center of my own battle between presence and planning, between this moment and the moments that are to come.
Between stillness and change.
The space between those two has filled in with a malaise that is thick and encompassing, swallowing up time and space in a way that feels permanent.
If we need to slow down and listen, to witness the swirling mass of chaos that is always surrounding us in order to find clarity, then when do we step back in to make sense of that chaos?
At what point do we see what is in front of us and also know our own power to affect change?
I think that, perhaps, the answer is knowing when to step into the chaos and attempt to alter the trajectory of our own life or the lives of others and, of course, knowing when to step back out. It seems to be an elaborate dance, stepping into life as it happens and retreating to our own sanctuary when it is necessary. We cannot be fully immersed in the doing all of the time and we also cannot sit on the mountaintop and pretend it does not exist. This hokey-pokey is sometimes clumsy and out of time, but sometimes the steps fall into place perfectly, like a well choreographed waltz.
How do I ask my students to be the change and be present? How do I ask the same of myself? How do we hold two things at once?
Maybe the answer lies within the dance. If we can somehow give ourselves over to the flow of energy, responding to the calls for change and the need for stillness completely and with our whole being, then our steps become natural and easy.
In a time of languishing, maybe the tempo just needs to slow, allowing us to hear the music that is underneath it all.
Amy finally settled into being a middle school English teacher, after a long rambling journey through a myriad of professions, which included learning how to expertly wait tables without dropping too many dishes, becoming a fully licensed stockbroker on Wall Street, navigating the Guilliani administration’s “Welfare to Work” program in New York City on behalf of displaced adults, and eventually finding her soul’s purpose at a Boys & Girls Club in Syracuse. The leap from there to teaching was an easy, logical (and responsible!) one. Teaching felt right, purposeful and impactful. After almost 20 years of teaching writing, Amy is finally putting her words out there, hoping that they find an audience. When she is not searching for the just right word, she can be found strumming the same three or four chords on her guitar, bantering with one of her three children or hiking in the woods with her husband. Her greatest joy comes from belly laughing with the few people she has gathered up as her friends…a hodgepodge tribe of like-minded people who also seem to appreciate the need for finding the just right words.
Editor: Dana Gornall