Zen and the art of Classroom Maintenance

Zen (noun) \’zen\

1a Japanese sect of Mahayana Buddhism that aims at enlightenment by direct intuition through meditation

2a state of calm attentiveness in which one’s actions are guided by intuition rather than by conscious effort

When Colin told me about his English teacher the other morning in the kitchen, he didn’t get very far into his story before I teared up and had to stop him.

As he was telling me about some classroom bullies and the object of their derision, I had a vision of a second- or third-year teacher, someone young looking enough that it wasn’t uncommon for other faculty to stop her in the hall and ask for her pass. Someone who didn’t yet have the chops to stand up to the jerks in her classroom, snotty adolescents who wore their earbuds through a lecture and made snide remarks about her under their breath.

She’d had a Zen garden, Colin told me. One of those kitschy palettes with sand and polished stones and a teeny rake I guess people use to do their teeny meditation sessions, stacking stones in teeny piles and raking teeny lines in the sand. One by one the stones went missing, and then the rake. Then one morning, students filed in to find sand scattered on the shelf and the floor below it, the palette overturned.

“I wonder what happened?” one of the snotty teens had the nerve to say.

The thought broke me for a minute, and I stood my kitchen that morning and ugly cried for a while after everyone left. I felt gloomy about the whole situation the entire day.

I looked up the teacher, who isn’t some novice, second-year instructor, it turns out, but someone my age. I thought of the years she’d probably been bringing her own property to school to spruce up her classroom, of the favorite books she lugged from home to share her love of literature with the few in the room who might catch that same passion, and many more who would only reluctantly pull out their earbuds for the day’s discussion.

I didn’t have a lot of extra time that afternoon, but I spent about two hours visiting every garden and gift shop I could think of that might have another one of those little gardens. I couldn’t find one. I’m sure I’ve seen them before. Silly, tacky things. The kind of thing you get your dad for Father’s Day when you know he can’t handle another tie, or pair of silly boxer shorts.

Do people buy Zen gardens for themselves, or are they always gifts? I started thinking about other kitschy stuff I could get if my search continued to yield nothing. It turns out it’s surprisingly difficult to find the exact, little desktop figurine to say “I’m sorry you have to deal with douchebags every day, here’s some cheap crap to make that a little less depressing.” Maybe a bookstore gift certificate would be better. Who needs more stuff anyway?

As is almost always the case for me, the excursion triggered a sort of existential fugue. How is it people can be so into shopping? I hate it.

Thank God others have more fortitude in this area. Colin’s girlfriend’s mom texted me a photo the next day.

“This one’s at Dragonfly!”

“Eureka! Grab that sucker!” I texted back. The kids could present it to their teacher the following Monday.

There was a little bit of a discussion over strategy. I was worried the kids would look like they were brown nosing (neither of them is doing stellar in her class). Both Colin and his girlfriend thought it best to wait until the end of the semester to give it to her, maybe stave off future attempts to pilfer the teeny garden accoutrements.

But I wanted her to have it right away. If anyone needed a little bolstering at this point in the school year, it had to be her. I couldn’t care less if the bullies dismantled the thing again, piece by piece. I was ready to buy a new Zen garden every damn week through Spring if I had to. Maybe find a wholesale source for those teeny rakes and have them shipped by the case.

As God as my witness, I thought, that woman is never going to have to go without a full supply kitschy Zen garden shit ever again!

The following week, the kids told me their teacher was overjoyed to receive her new Zen garden. She was surprised and said she didn’t know what she did to deserve such thoughtfulness. She set that new Zen garden down right where the old Zen garden had been, on a shelf near the door where anyone could palm a teeny rake on their way out if they dang well wanted to.

It was silly of her, the kids said. They’d have hidden the thing, or at least made it more difficult to ruin. Maybe she should put it up near her desk where she could keep an eye on it. What could she be thinking?

But weeks have gone by now, and the garden is still there. Every day I ask the kids about it. The rocks and sand and teensy rake are still all in their proper places.

The bullies are still there too. They still refuse to take out their earbuds in class. They still openly defy her, testing her ability to hold her shit together in the classroom.

I think about her putting that garden out there, out in the open like that, steeling herself every morning to come in and find the sand spilled out onto the floor.

I wonder too about her coming back to that classroom each day, to face these crappy kids who could care less about poetry or prose or protagonists. Maybe her setting that garden out where anyone could dismantle it is an act of defiance.

Or maybe it’s one of trust? Trust that these douchey people will one day reflect after they’ve muscled their way through these angsty years. What if it’s an act of compassion for when they do? Maybe because she set it back on that shelf, it will let them remember the new Zen garden and think “thank God I wasn’t enough to completely break her.”

Maybe it’s a manifestation of her putting herself out there on behalf of these kids, an everyday admission of vulnerability in the face of complete chaos and senseless acts.

Or … maybe it’s faith that–in the midst of the bullies–there have to be at least one or two kids who pay attention. To whom it will matter if there is one less stone sitting in the sand, or a teeny rake that’s missing, and that they’ll want to do something about it.

In any case, I feel like I’m on the verge of getting it, this Zen thing and the associated kitschy crap that goes with it. I’m also a little relived I don’t have to start stockpiling teeny rakes.

Because I still really do hate shopping.


Speaking of “getting it,” did you know Teacher appreciation week is May 6 – 10? If you’re wondering what you can do for that special teacher in your life (whether or not you care for shopping) and your teacher already has a Zen garden, may I suggest this wonderful new book in which I have a new essay?

Will Work for Apples

Teachers rock!

Teachers have an impossibly hard job. We expect them to do everything: Educate our kids, tie their shoes, facilitate their arguments, grade their papers, sharpen their pencils, and more! And when a teacher isn’t doing all these things, they’re usually taking continuing education, coming up with lesson plans, figuring out new technology, answering student and parent emails, and buying supplies for the classroom. All without anyone really noticing.

This book is a thank you to the teachers who made a difference in our lives and in our children’s lives, with stories from 39 different writers (including me!). Buy your autographed copy now for $18 plus tax (includes shipping).

Limited quantities of autographed copies available now for $18

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  1. As usual, Beth, it is steller! And I DO expect an autographed copy!