Echoes of Learning
In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, we learn the origin story of echoes (alongside a cautionary tale of falling in love with a narcissist). The gist is that the goddess Juno had cursed a young forest nymph named Echo as punishment for distracting her with sweet language while her husband, Jupiter, was dancing among the other nymphs. Per the curse, the only words that Echo could speak were exact repetitions of the last few words that she heard. She was rendered entirely reliant on what others said: if they did not speak at all, then neither could she. Unable to express herself properly, Echo became misunderstood and was rejected by Narcissus, the object of her [and his own] affection. Crippled by shame, and literally unspeakable frustration, she retreated into a cave where she withered away until only her voice remained, echoing the sounds of the forest. Forever.
In “Echo,” poet Alexander Pushkin alludes to Ovid’s Echo Myth. In directly addressing the cursed nymph who lost her ability to initiate discourse, he creates a metaphor for the experience of the poet. Published in 1831, the poem seems to reflect Pushkin’s own life because years earlier, his controversial poems had landed him in exile, no longer able to publish his work in Russia. Upset by his silencing, perhaps in “Echo,” he also expresses the specific anxiety that his poetry would not reach future poets, for poets don’t just spring up out of the ground like perennials come spring. They write in response to those who came before them; writing fertilizes writing.
But I think there’s an even greater reading of “Echo” that cuts into an emotional truth about writing and—what I hardly imagine Pushkin intended—about teaching. While I don’t think it is also a teacher’s nature to be ignored, it is natural for teachers to sometimes feel as though it is. Formerly speaking to Echo, whose haunting voice resounds lonely in the atmosphere, in the final lines of the poem Pushkin suddenly writes, “This also, poet, is your nature.” In other words, it is natural for a poet’s words to be ignored. Meditating on this conclusion begets concerns about poetry’s general reception, back then and now. But fundamentally, this line raises the unsettling question of why we hesitate to engage people who want to show us something about humanity. At their core, writers are observers. Surely there is much to learn from them about ourselves. Why does it feel so easy to dismiss them? And historically humans have always yearned for knowledge, right?
But even in person, under ordinary circumstances when there is no pandemic to blame, it is hard to know if you’re truly getting through to your students. Whether standing in front of 16 giddy chatter-bugs sneaking glances at their phones, or 16 quiet girls whose books are open and eyes are boring into your soul, you can’t tell for certain how much they’re gleaning from you. It is equally possible that their marginalia, inscrutable from your distance, contains exactly the insights you’ve pointed out plus shrewd comments of their own AND that with all their highlighting, they’ve just gone rogue. You can guess which one it is, and you may be right, but you won’t know for sure.
Until you read their writing.
Reading their writing, you’re privy to their honest experiences of a text, and more broadly, what gems they’re catching in your class—I said gems, not germs. You learn how they’re actually thinking about the author’s choices. As writing is a way of organizing one’s thoughts, you directly see them working through the complexity, trying to wade deeper (or cling to the shore). Student writing offers a peek at how much they have picked up what you have put down, and moreover, how effectively you have modeled analytical thinking. Weirdly, students do not always retain what you have laid at their feet on a gilded platter, via a scaffolded, creative lesson plan with researched Gen Z references. Often, they latch onto a random aside in a juicy tangent about the author’s biography, in the last minute of class. (Although perhaps it is essential knowledge that I Capture the Castle author Dodie Smith also wrote One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and she herself did have nine. If this anecdote were to rope a student into learning about Smith’s work, I would consider this fact crucial.)
The humanities classroom is a buzzing ecosystem of thought, and if the buzzing is not confirmed by visible class engagement, you will eventually see it in a batch of papers. More often than I would like to admit, I am convinced that I’ve lost the students. The concepts are too abstract. There’s something glitzier on their computers. My expectations are too lofty for students with an academic track significantly disrupted by COVID. I’m nervous I’ve tried to lead them too deep, too quickly. But weeks later, their papers reveal they were indeed still following me. The analysis may have been slightly too deep for some, at a pace slightly too quick for others, yet they all managed to grasp something decently substantial and build on it.
Students that make you feel trapped inside your personal echo chamber are capable of reflecting and synthesizing ideas that emerge in class discussion—evidence that they, in fact, hear you. These students can and do join the chat by hatching ideas of their own through writing—this is how they respond.
The more I think about it, it seems reasonable, and in certain cases necessary, for the greater discourse between teacher-student to be delayed if we want students to develop their own relationships with a text. Meaningful relationships take time and evolve naturally. We understand that stories don’t hook every reader from the start; for some readers, it may take a few chapters to develop their investment. Likewise, not every student is able to succinctly and insightfully gather her thoughts to respond to a teacher right then during class. For some, it may take multiple class discussions and then sitting alone with a prompt and a blank page.
So, as an English teacher I wonder three things: 1) When students are quiet, how activated is my own human need to be seen and heard? 2) Is anyone still reading this post? 3) To what degree does it matter if what you pointed out in class is the thing that invests students in a text?
Though I am sorry for Pushkin’s resonance with the ignored nymph, Echo, I wish I could tell him that feelings are not reality—his voice carries on through his poetry and we are listening. His work has fertilized generations of poets, just as when you are teaching, your greatest teachers are teaching again through you.
And your perpetually silent students are writing what I suggest you read first. You can glimpse how their thinking is evolving, but even they don’t know your full effect on them. How could anyone? It might take a while, but a student response is on its way to you, and beyond you. This, teacher, is your nature.
In her eighth year of teaching, Biz Kechejian currently teaches English to freshmen and juniors at an all-girls independent school in Dallas, Texas. She taught English and coached Cross Country at a coed independent school in Houston before moving up to Dallas. Originally from Milton, MA, she has a Bachelor’s in Psychology from Boston University and an MFA in Creative Writing, with a concentration in Poetry, from the University of Florida. Through literature, she guides her students to realize the essential qualities of being human and with in-depth character analysis, tries to teach them how to understand other people. She encourages her students to play with language in creative assignments and applauds their analytical writing as it in turn becomes more colorful and precise. Her ultimate goal is for students to develop, and feel empowered by, their powers of perception and express their insights in a sophisticated voice unique to them. She is a night person, loves experimental flower arrangements; lavender lattes are her new kryptonite; she believes in signs.
Pushkin, "Echo." Translated by Michael Mesic. poetryfoundation.org