By Isabelle Laurenzi
“Are you still going to see the total eclipse?” a former student asks me in late June. We’ve run into each other a couple weeks after the school year has ended.
Teenagers, he’s reminded me, still care about the extent to which we act according to our speech. They want us adults, sometimes even need us, to do what we say we’ll do.
I would see the eclipse on August 21, as I told my 10th graders I would during the two days we spent reading and discussing Annie Dillard’s 1981 essay, “Total Eclipse.” I’ve been planning to see this eclipse for three and a half years, since I first read Dillard’s essay. Three and a half years isn’t a very long time, but it is nearly the length of a presidency. It is enough time to change the world or, more likely, to be changed by it. And it is certainly enough time to forget.
The essay both is and isn’t what its title purports it to be about. Dillard saw the total solar eclipse of 1979 from the Yakima Valley in Washington State. Two years later, she wrote an essay about the experience. But in that essay, she also writes about memory; about what we remember and what we forget; about the attempt to make sense of an experience that, at first, feels senseless; about using language to communicate those experiences to others; about the necessity of caring for each other by preserving, in writing, our way of life together here on earth. All of this has to do with a moral revelation about our responsibilities to each other, or what Dillard calls “waking up.”
Teaching “Total Eclipse” reminded me that Dillard’s essay is as much about writing and “waking up” as it is about seeing an eclipse; as such, it is about the ethics of learning and teaching. And these activities are civic ones; regardless of our chosen professions, all of us partake in them.
What is an eclipse? It is a moment of perfect alignment and unprecedented darkness. Disparate celestial bodies glide into place along a single line. The moon blocks the light of the sun in such a way that most of us have never seen or will ever see in our lifetimes. The world looks unfamiliar. What we once knew becomes senseless.
An eclipse is also paradoxical. Normally, we associate alignment with clarity. We say that something has “clicked” when we achieve understanding, as if two puzzle pieces fit together and lock into place. But, at the moment it occurs, the eclipse brings no such revelation; rather, it evokes bewilderment. It confuses, even causes despair.
The revelation that Dillard describes in her essay as a result of the eclipse only becomes accessible to her after the eclipse has ended. The first time she can ascribe meaning to her experience happens in a diner, when a college student in a blue parka remarks that the eclipse looked like a “Life Saver.” Dillard writes, “He was a walking alarm clock. I myself had at that time no access to such a word. He could write a sentence, and I could not… All those things for which we have no words are lost.” Only after the eclipse, when she regains access to language, to her ability to “write a sentence,” can Dillard begin to carry out the interpretive task of understanding the meaning of the eclipse.
Her revelatory experience becomes clearest in terms of a metaphor Dillard deploys throughout her essay: revelation is like a gold mine. Putting oneself in a position of revelation, getting into the mine, is dangerous business. Perilous, even. The walls of the gold mine are so hot they burn the miners’ hands. Gold, the content of the revelation, may be found in the depths of the mine, but it only acquires value when brought to the surface of the earth, where it can be transformed into a usable form.
The “usable form” of a revelation is its expression in language, fit to our shared understanding of the rules of grammar and lexicon. It provides value or “meaning.” Yet it requires two people; language, after all, is something we communicate, whether in speech or in writing. This is why Dillard explains, “no people, no significance”: meaning can only exist when we have language and people with whom we can converse.
In short, Dillard revisits an experience to make sense of it and to write about it. That is what my students must do. It is what all students who write must do. They must answer simple, but difficult questions: How do I lay down a line of words that expresses what’s in my head to my reader? How do I communicate something that seems incommunicable?
The morning I first taught Dillard’s essay, a student, we’ll call him Max, approached me on the staircase to our classroom. Max is sometimes a jokester, but he’s undoubtedly one of the most sophisticated analytical thinkers I’ve taught.
“Ms. Laurenzi,” he asks in earnest, “what is this essay you assigned us? It’s so dark!”
I smile, satisfied at his strong reaction and at the thought that I’ll soon be bringing him to the light, the “revelation,” in Dillard’s essay. He continues.
“There’s death everywhere! ‘It had been like dying,’” he quotes. “I mean, that’s a pretty dark first line!”
And so it was. The boy spoke well.
I know Dillard’s essay like the back of my hand. I had reviewed my notes to guide fifteen sixteen-year-olds through Dillard’s complex structural masterpiece, and yet I’d forgotten to begin at the beginning. To remember something as simple as the first line. Death is, indeed, everywhere in Dillard’s essay. How could I forget she lay it bare in the very first uttering of the essay? “It had been like dying,” she writes, as if we could ever really know what dying is like. Already we are out of our depths. Max brought me there: back to the place of bewilderment and humility. The best place to examine something one does not yet understand. And I dared to think I understood it already.
I underestimated the aplomb with which my students navigated the issues of memory in “Total Eclipse.” They understand memory’s faultiness, and its connection to storytelling, from Tim O’Brien, whose The Things They Carried captures them in ninth grade. They know it, too, because they actively partake in the fabrication of their own experiences when they snap a moment through a half-centimeter sized lens and slap a filter onto the resulting image. The idea that memory is fiction, not fact, is part of their daily existence. Their understanding may not allow them to protect themselves from the social exclusion or self-criticism they seem to invariably feel when those Instagram posts go awry — which is to say, fail to supply social validation and instead, evoke self-doubt — but it put them in a position to travel with Dillard into her gold mine.
The writer in me relishes what Dillard says about language and our “work” here on earth: “it was good to have all the world’s words at the mind’s disposal, so the mind could begin its task.” Using our “two little tools, grammar and lexicon” to put our experiences into a form that is usable to others — that is what we writers are set here to do.
A few days before my lessons on “Total Eclipse,” a bright student, Lillian, asked to meet with me to discuss her final paper from the previous unit. When we met, days after “Total Eclipse,” all she wanted to discuss was Dillard’s essay.
“I don’t understand,” she says, staring at her annotations. “We’re just supposed to share? We’re all just supposed to tell our story and everything will be fine? Maybe this is just my generation, but — we share all the time, it’s all we do, but it’s not for caring. It’s out of concern for ourselves, so I don’t see how it could actually do anything.”
She’s found a crevice between my ribs, a vulnerable spot in the shoddy infrastructure protecting what I hold most dear, and stuck a paring knife in it. She has a point.
But there are different kinds of sharing; different modes of expression. What Lillian has begun to see is that communicating personal experience raises ethical concerns about veracity and intent. I tell her I don’t have an answer for her, that she should sit with her discomfort in “sharing,” but also that she should come chat again if that sitting becomes too much.
For homework, I ask my students to write a response to the essay using Dillard’s language or her concept of “waking up.” They must write at least a page, in prose or in poetry. They can write about anything. I am less interested in their analysis of Dillard’s essay than in what they do with it.
Their submissions are arresting. My students may be some of the most privileged in our country, but their responses showed no lack of depth or empathy. They wrote of tragic losses of their parents, severed families, the absence of reason or logic, a world in which humans have lost the capacity to solve problems.
One told the story of a memory which he questioned whether he truly remembered. It had been told so many times to him: he was a toddler, he climbed into his grandfather’s coffin to sit on his grandfather’s lap. He hates the possibility that this memory is fake; he holds onto it because he hates even more the idea that he has no recollection of his grandfather that is his own.
Another student told a story which my colleagues assured me this student would never tell: how his parents’ divorce upended his world, and how he avoids thinking about it. This student handled everything well, I had heard. What I saw was a boy acknowledging that there was a gold mine under his feet and that he felt unprepared to dig into it. That mine was too perilous for the time being. It was easier, at 16, to float on the surface, even if that meant giving the peers and adults in his life the appearances he knew they wanted.
One of my quietest students, whom I would soon come to understand as one of my most inquisitive, submitted four pages chronicling the concussion she suffered after an accident. The fear of not remembering shook her more than anything else.
Then there was the student wrote about a mine she had been “stuck” in: an eating disorder, whose “fake” gold of a “size 0” had kept her digging, searching to weigh less. Getting out of that mine required understanding that she had been staring at fools’ gold and that there was other gold to find.
The final section of Dillard’s essay begins: “We teach our children one thing only, as we were taught: to wake up.” What does it mean to “wake up”? Dillard describes a participation in our communities. She says, “we teach our children to look alive there, to join by words and activities the life of the human culture on the planet’s crust.” This “waking up” is habitual. It’s the kind that we practice daily when we roll out of bed, haul ourselves to school or to work, engage with those around us, try to “look alive,” join fellow human beings in our actions or in our words.
As a teacher, I must require this kind of “waking up” from my students. I ask them to participate in class, to carry responsibility for their own learning, to take ownership of their work, to find what themes in a text makes them tick. We debate issues of agency when we read The Odyssey and ambition when we read Macbeth.
But I also want my students to “wake up” in the other sense that Dillard describes: that “waking up” of moral revelation. In “Total Eclipse,” it’s the revelation that “significance” cannot exist without “people” and that we must commit to the “task” of sharing what we learn in that usable form of language, once we reemerge from the depths of the mine. That which we find hardest to put into words may be the most valuable things we have to say.
“Total Eclipse” ultimately suggests a merging between the habitual “waking up” and the revelatory kind. This kind does not happen organically and is not taught — it is a choice. A choice to return to the mind of the child who wakes with new knowledge each day. It is not for ourselves along. As we must use language in our habitual waking up, so too moral awakening has no moral significance with no people.
Dillard reminds us that what we know is almost always different from what we experience; that we cannot learn significance on our own; that we always have a choice in how we engage with the world and how we respond to revelation; and that we have a duty, in teaching, to create genuine gold mines
I had planned to go West to see the eclipse. I pictured myself under a rugged landscape: pavement surrounded by reddish dusty clay east, blackened sky studded with perfect constellations, and a “wrong” sun.
Then I realized the eclipse would pass over Charleston. Charleston, where I’ve been once before for the wedding of my mother’s first cousin. Where my dad’s college buddy, a longtime public defender, told us that race relations where surprisingly amicable in this Southern city only weeks before the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. And Charleston, where the August weather will leave chances for clouds and thunderstorms on the afternoon of the 21st. Not the kind of conditions one wants to rely upon when planning to see an eclipse.
It may have been foolish to risk it, but I took my chances.
After all, you cannot control what your students may haul up from the depths of the gold mine and fling onto your desk any more than you can control the weather. This remains true for all genuine mining expeditions you lead. Even if there are rules in place. Even if your school’s student culture rewards conformity and playing by those rules. You can increase your chances of certainty if you go where conditions are ideal, where surprises tend not to happen, if you give students a sense of exactly what you’re “looking for.”
But nothing changes and nothing is learned when you make all serious attempts to control these variables. Don’t mistake the gold mine for a tourist destination: you can add safety precautions — air-conditioning, elevators — but the mine is no safe place, certainly not for a teacher. Such is the price you’ll pay for their gold when you return to the light.