Attention

kelly-foster

By Kelly Foster

It’s not an uncommon occurrence in my class to hear some variation of the following: “Ms. Foster, I’m really sorry I’m being so hyper! I didn’t take my medication today!”

And it’s not an uncommon conversation around the old faculty water cooler (yes, we do sometimes discuss students behind closed doors) to go over and over the various apocalyptic, postmodern ways in which students are losing their capacity for patient and sustained interest in finishing tasks. Television. The Internet. Video Games. Texting. Twitter. They are all to blame, we think.

And of course, we are often right.

These are real and potentially really dangerous phenomena of our cultural moment and my students really do obsessively monitor their laptops every few seconds while they take notes and they really do pull out their cell phones as soon as the lunch bell rings and they really do discuss all the various plot twists of Lost and monitor each others’ fantasy football scores and quote movies like The Hangover at an almost constant patter.

It is difficult to get them to actually read the Odyssey (which has been my project for the last two weeks), because most of them abandon it when they feel the slightest tug of effort weighing them down—an unfamiliar turn of phrase, perhaps, or an awkward rhyme. If a night’s reading requires twenty minutes of undivided comprehension, I can guarantee they will come in the next morning moaning, “Ms. Foster, it took me forever to read that homework last night! I worked so hard!”

And yet, I will just as often hear them talking about how they watched an entire season of Gossip Girl in a single day. Talk about forever.

None of this is news to anyone who’s been around a teenager in the last, oh, I don’t know, forever. Perspective is not always available. I still don’t have much capacity for perspective at 32. What the heck do I know?

And despite their many shortcomings (and my own), I often feel what I imagine must approximate the confusion of parental love, this bemusing mixture of utter frustration and utter self-negation, the occasional desire to punch the kid in the teeth mingled with the knowledge that you would jump in front of any kind of danger to keep them mended and whole.

I am, bless them, smitten with my kiddos quite hopelessly. I think I’ll keep them around.

But I know what it’s like—the impotent wrestling with what feels like the tedium of all details coupled with an almost frantic desire to be entertained, to be stimulated, not to be left alone with silence and whatever lurks there in the silence, waiting to tear you apart with its grim, dull teeth.

Given their own extreme proclivities, many of my students (granted, there are eighty nine of them, many of whom are exceptions to all these generalities and would quite rightly resent being lumped in with the majority) would literally never listen to a single lecture or participate in a single class all day long. They would talk to each other, hang out, listen to us teachers tell stories—about anything except school—play video games on their laptops, and talk about what makes them laugh.

And after a return to school from the loveliness of my winter break, I have to laugh at myself a bit. Old as I am, I don’t know that I’m so different. Given the option to grade a set of papers or not to grade them, well, I’m going to choose not.

Every now and again, I will catch even the most reticent with something of substance and their too often darting eyes will linger and still and widen. And I know I’ve got them on the tightrope with me for just a moment and it’s as exhilarating as any downward glance and just as dangerous.

Several months ago, we were discussing syllogisms and the various ways in which philosophers have interpreted what happens in the Book of Job. The author of our introduction made the point that he found it logically impossible to believe that God could author suffering, Job could be innocent, and God still be just. He called it the “Impossible Syllogism.”

“Why’s that impossible? Is that impossible?” I asked, after drawing it out on the board.

There were no immediate answers, but there were also no eyes not wholly fixed on mine. There were no keystrokes. There were no averted glances. There were no giggles. For about five minutes, I had them. We had each other. We held sacred attention together. We were whole. We saw something essential and inquisitive revealed and the inessential peeled back.

For about five minutes. For twenty fourteen year olds on various psychiatric cocktails of attention deficit medications, that’s no small miracle.

I heard a speaker once draw the analogy between “attending” and “attention.” I think of attendance as showing up, of attending as serving. I think of attention as a kind of stopping. He made the point that when we give our purest attention to anything, we serve it, we bow towards it, and in so doing, we expose our necks.

I am trying, in my own scattershot thirties (I don’t even have adolescence to blame for my deficits), to slow down long enough to attend, to shut up, to turn off the noise, to focus on detail. Owning an older home has served as a good antidote for my inattention and fear of tedium. Every week, a new need demands my unhampered focus. This week it was the specter of frozen pipes that sent me running to Home Depot.

It could be worse.

Stapling visqueen to the latticework under my back porch, I looked up and around me. I took a breath. I am here. I am here. I am here. I thought to myself.

And then I got back to work.

Note: This post was orginally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.