Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours
Everything. I gave an exam worth
40 percent of the grade for this term
and assigned some reading due today
on which I’m about to hand out a quiz
worth 50 percent
Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose
Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
a shaft of light suddenly descended and an angel
or other heavenly being appeared
and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
to attain divine wisdom in this life and
This is the last time the class will meet
before we disperse to bring the good news to all people on earth.
Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?
Everything. Contained in this classroom
is a microcosm of human experience
assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
This is not the only place such an opportunity has been gathered
but it was one place
And you weren’t here
— Tom Wayman
This poem by Tom Wayman is one that I keep close all throughout the teaching year and into summer. Our dear students have no idea how much time we spend thinking and planning and hoping for them. I suspect most teachers have heard this question and it creates a response in me that ranges from uncomfortable silence — they usually get rather disconcerted by the look on my face — to outrage or sarcastic quips. What they don’t understand is that inherent in the question is the presumption that not much at all went on without them. It always creates a tentative moment.
Wayman answers the question perfectly:
contained in this classroom is a microcosm of human experience
assembled for you to query and examine and ponder.
not the only place
but one place
and you weren’t here
And their absence–even for just one period–changes that microcosm in a thousand ways. We describe our work with our dear students as a calling, our classrooms as sacred spaces, our interactions throughout the school as opportunities. I wish they could know how much their presence means to us every day.