On Imperfection


When saying goodbye to my senior classes, I talked with them about the imperfection of the year (and, for two of my classes, two years). We had not had a sparkling procession of perfect lessons; some had gone better than others, for all sorts of reasons. But the imperfections, especially my own, helped me understand the students and the subject better. An imperfection is an incongruity between some ideal and reality; sometimes the ideal is clear in my mind, sometimes not, but I know that I (or the situation) did not match up to it. So I ask myself, what went wrong, if anything? Sometimes nothing went wrong; the ideal itself was at fault. But if something did go wrong, I try to understand why. Usually it’s that I expected one thing from the lesson, and the students expected or needed something else. The phrase “the students” is a faulty generalization, though; rarely do all students respond in the same way. The differences help me see what is going on.

I think of a recent tenth-grade lesson. We meet twice a week and have been alternating between Hamlet and activities such as debates. For this lesson, I had chosen a debate topic often found in textbooks and exam practice workbooks: “Mobile phones should be banned from schools.” Some students made eloquent arguments and seemed fully involved in the imagined controversy–but I saw a few problems. First, I had not framed the topic especially well. What does it mean to ban mobile phones from schools? Can they be used in emergencies? Second, I saw that a few students appeared dissatisfied with the debate. I spoke with them afterward; they told me that the topic did not interest them. One student simply didn’t like it; others found it trivial, since they do not see cell phone use as a big problem at the school.

So I remembered the importance of choosing and defining a topic carefully, together with the class. Not everyone has to like it, but we can figure out what it is and discuss the reasons for debating it.

Imperfections do more than help me see how to improve a lesson. We have limited time together (at school and in general), and it goes by faster than I think it will. When the end comes, it isn’t all wrapped up and tidy. The ceremonies bring grace to things, but there is always this or that unfinished matter, a goodbye unsaid, a missed appointment, something that didn’t get done. This year I understood that this unfinishedness had a place too: that, first of all, it gives us the impetus to keep trying for better, in whatever form or way we do, and second, it can give us some generosity. We don’t expect others to be signed and sealed, since we ourselves are not.

I don’t mean that I or anyone else should stop striving to perform beautifully, make lasting things, fulfill responsibilities, or reach goals. That is where the imperfections come from; without the striving, there wouldn’t be imperfection, just mediocrity at best. But imperfection, besides being here to stay, allows us a glimpse of each other, ourselves, and the things we have set out to do.

Along these lines, I wrote a graduation sonnet today (except for the last line, completed on May 2). It is dedicated to everyone graduating from the Varga Katalin Gimnázium this year. At one point it  slight echoes Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.”

Graduation Sonnet

Now that we have a cloudy day of rest
between the serenade and ballagás,
the year and all its windings come untressed,
like threads unweaving from an heirloom sash.
So tight our warp and woof: we stretch and strive
for tapestry, for colored silken scenes,
but when our longed-for patterns come alive,
they uncombine; the end unties the means.
There starts the joy: for what else can you do
but sing and sing again, and fuller sing,
as time runs thin? The music weaves anew
but without claim; air made of everything,
it gives back all we thought was gone, and more,
and leaves the leaving richer than before.

I took this picture yesterday on my way home after the evening serenade at school.

Thanks to my friend Joyce Mandell for inspiring this post.

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1 Comment

  1. The Ballagás That Wasn’t | Take Away the Takeaway

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