Jane Eyre Pilgrimage, Part I: Or, How Kate Bush is Preparing Me for This School Year
In May 2022, I took the personal and professional development trip of a lifetime: a Jane Eyre pilgrimage. It was a weeklong reading, writing, and walking experience on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre with 20 other pilgrims through the Yorkshire moors. This pilgrimage is one of many offered by Vanessa Zoltan and her team at Not Sorry Productions. As they explain on their website, these trips “are much more than travel. They are an attempt to, through the ancient practice of pilgrimage, have meaningful experiences that we take back with us long after the trip is over and live our lives as changed people.” Upcoming pilgrimages include Harry Potter and Pride and Prejudice. What follows here is a quick slice of that trip that has been rolling around in my brain as I prepare for this upcoming school year.
“And then Kate Bush….”
Last May, I found myself standing atop a hill in the Yorkshire Moors, somewhere outside Thornton, the birthplace of the Brontë sisters. My afternoon guide—a man clad in crisp dark jeans, a black skull scarf, and a rather surprising collection of thick silver skull rings—was telling stories about Reverend Patrick Brontë and his famous literary daughters: Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. A native of Thornton, this skull-bedecked man had recently placed his hometown on the Brontë literary map. How did he do it? By commissioning, with the support of the Bradford Literature Festival and the Arts Council England, four poems by Britain’s leading women writers to be carved into large stones: one poem-stone for each of the three sisters and a fourth for their collective legacy. Former UK Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy wrote Charlotte’s, singer-songwriter Kate Bush wrote Emily’s, former National Poet of Scotland Jackie Kay wrote Anne’s, and writer Jeanette Winterson took on the family stone. These stones are strategically placed in and around Thornton, and I was currently on the “Charlotte Stone Walk,” which begins at her birthplace and then meanders for a few miles outside the town.
I’ll be honest. I was tired that afternoon and far more interested in mindlessly staring out onto the windswept moors than listening to this man. He kept repeatedly mentioning “Kate Bush” in a tone that could only be described as “smugly pretentious,” and while I had a vague notion that she is a songwriter, I couldn’t quite understand why he was so proud of his connections to her. Of course, turn the clock forward a month or so, and Kate Bush would be so ubiquitous in the American pop culture conversation, thanks to the wildly successful re-emergence of her 1985 single “Running Up that Hill” in Stranger Things, that I can’t help but laugh every time the song comes on the radio.
I was on day three of a weeklong Jane Eyre pilgrimage with about twenty other travelers from across the United States—and a handful from Germany, Italy, and England. The early rush of exhilaration that often accompanies the beginning of a new experience was quickly fading into exhaustion, and the lure of a nap in that lush British grass was very real. Nearly every time the guide said “Kate Bush,” many of my fellow pilgrims smiled at each other and a couple even started making creepy hand and arm gestures reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dance. I thought I might be hallucinating. But I just smiled and settled my head onto my backpack, angling it just right so that my face could capture some of the thin British sun peeking from the clouds.
Weeks later I would discover through our pilgrimage group chat that I wasn’t the only one who was blindly nodding that day, as only a handful of my fellow pilgrims actually knew who Kate Bush was. Those few who actually did were pantomiming the dance from her 1978 “Wuthering Heights” music video. (If you haven’t seen the video yet, I highly suggest you click on the link. Go ahead, I’ll wait.…. Mesmerizing, right? Now, check out The Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever, a global event begun in 2016 and held every July 30th in honor of Kate Bush’s birthday. People gather in parks dressed as Bush does in the video: flowing red dresses or skirts, red flowers in their hair. Look for a Dallas installment next July. Maybe.)
I have procrastinated writing about any part of this Jane Eyre pilgrimage because so much of it seems too sacred to record. My fellow pilgrims are some of the most supportive and loving humans I have encountered on this earth; they are all so deeply wise and empathetic, smart, self-aware—and also have a wild sense of humor. To record them on the page doesn’t feel quite right. At least not yet.
This moment on the hill, though, is etched into my soul, and as I begin this new academic year, I keep thinking about it–and not just because “Running Up That Hill” is an apt metaphor for the beginning of any school year.
What follows are a few humble thoughts about teaching rolling around in my brain, shaped by this Kate Bush hill moment:
Teaching often requires performative acts but should not be a performance. My guide that day, in teacher terms, was a performer–the sage on the stage. He centered himself as the authority on the Brontës, even though two of the women in our group have run a successful, research-based podcast on Charlotte Brontë, and one of those two has also published a bestselling book on Jane Eyre. It is telling, I think, that all I remember from his talk are his pompous, repetitive declarations of his connection to Kate Bush and hardly anything about the Brontës. In my almost two decades of teaching, I have run across teachers who focus more on the cultivation of their persona than their curriculum, and these teachers are often so beloved that I begin to feel insecure about my own classroom approach: Maybe I need to talk more about myself? Maybe I need to lecture more? Develop a wacky habit or even a catchphrase? But students bring so much wisdom and experience of their own into the academic space that to be the sage-on-the-stage instead of the guide-on-their-side is a disservice to their development as active agents in the learning process. Place students, not yourself, at the center of the classroom. They want to be seen and heard and known, and finding ways to do that for them seems a lot less stressful than worrying about yourself and your persona.
Teachers don’t always have all the answers, and that’s ok. (See above about being a guide, not a sage.) For at least my first decade of teaching (and still to an extent today), I was the teacher-version of me on the hill that afternoon: nodding and pretending to know who Kate Bush is. I was often afraid to ask my teacher colleagues for support and deathly afraid of students asking a question that I didn’t have an answer for. But asking for support is not a sign of weakness and not knowing an answer is not a sign of stupidity. When I inevitably don’t have an answer, my hope is to model for my students what it means to be a lifelong learner: to not be embarrassed by a gap in knowledge but to instead embrace it, even finding joy in it. To demonstrate enthusiastic curiosity for the unknown and the various pathways we can take to find those answers.
Learning is a process that takes time, often lots of it. Be patient. If teaching was as simple as telling students something that they immediately internalize, then we wouldn’t actually need teachers, just lecture recordings and a whole bunch of books. I need to remember this when, after about fifteen separate lessons on quote integration, for example, a student finally declares to me, “Oh, we can’t just randomly drop a quote into our essay?” Or, when I run into a former student who is now in the early stages of her career and she says, “You know, I finally realized why we read The Awakening. So much of Edna’s world is clearer now.” The seeds teachers plant may take a little time to take root, but just keep cultivating them anyway. My colleague Biz Kechejian elegantly reflects on these ideas in her post “Echoes of Learning,” a good one to check out if you ever wonder, “Is anyone even listening to me?!” Patience truly is a virtue. When Kate Bush released “Running Up That Hill” in 1985, did she know that thirty-seven years later she would suddenly be raking in millions on it? Maybe, but what a nice surprise to know that her music, four decades later, is now touching millions of new listeners.
Finally, make space for fun and joy. After two years of COVID teaching, teachers need lots of it. In her videos, Kate Bush is always so free-spirited, authentic, incandescent, uninhibited–as if she is just floating effortlessly through the air. It is this spirit that I hope teachers (and myself!) can carry into this year.
Megan Griffin is a found poet who finds herself poetically searching.