Sigh

I’d like to re-classify my professional role.

Teacher.

I don’t like the stereotypes that surface.

I think of a nun slapping wrists with a ruler, or a stuffy principal speaking in measured monotone: “Now Billy, that’s not the way we act in this school, young man.”

The more I venture away from teaching in a traditional sense, the more I can get across to my students. The young brain is hard-wired to deem anything traditional as full of shit.

My goal is to show them something, something they see everyday, something they take for granted. I have them pick it up, turn it around, and learn that it is multi-dimensional. I inform them there is an underside to every stone in the hope that they will turn over more stones after taking my class.

One of my favorite stone-turners is Robert Frost. Frost is often misrepresented. Take his iconic, “The Road Not Taken”.

The entirety of the poem hinges on the interpretation of one four-letter word: sigh.

Stay with me on this, pretend you’re not one of my students.

The last stanza:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

ages and ages hence:

two roads diverged in the woods and I—

I took the road less travelled by

and that has made all the difference.”

The road less travelled has become the turn of phrase to imply a life lived outside of the box; and a life lived satisfactorily. Scott Peck turned it into a best-selling work of non-fiction. Peck’s book asserts that fulfilment is attained by those who take the uncommon path.

But I don’t believe that was Frost’s intention.

Frost wrote that the road less travelled made all the difference. In math the term difference is the value between two numbers. A difference can be a positive or negative number; it has no inherent value.

It all comes down to the sigh. Is it a sigh of satisfaction?—the kind you unleash at the end of a hard day’s work? Or is it a sigh of distress?—the kind you utter subconsciously when you sit down and have nothing better to do than open Facebook.

I like to show this to my students because they use expressions, such as “Y-O-L-O” coined by Drake, meaning “You Only Live Once” Without knowing that before Drake was Henry David Thoreau who went to the woods for 2 years in order to, “Suck out all the marrow of life” (Walden) or “seize the day.”

I like it because anything taken at face value is not worth a damn, and our present culture swims in the surface of things. Yes, I liken our American culture to grown-ups splashing water at each other in the kiddie pool. Just look at our presidential debates.

Frost’s life was plagued with turmoil and turbulence. His tombstone epitaph reads: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”  

Whether or not Frost was content with his life, the poem is remarkably good at summing up all of one’s existence. Your final sigh—will it be in satisfaction or distress?

I find the poem a cautionary one. In it, Frost writes that “way leads on to way” which tells the reader that however you are sighing today, is likely how you will be sighing tomorrow. If you can make today well-lived, tomorrow will take care of itself. Shit. Y-O-L-O.

So the real question becomes not how you will sigh in your final days, but how are you sighing right now, in this moment?

Sigh.

frost-pic

26 Responses to “Sigh

  • colin chatburn
    12 months ago

    mark,a simple question.do your students spend much time looking out the window at pigeons copulating?lol.might be better to go with the litteral,don’t bother with all that wordy english stuff.

  • Mark, this is a great one for a Monday morning. I think the less traveled road (Peck style) is too easily romanticized at the expense of, yes, the miracle to be found in the mundane. Sorry for the bad pun in this case but you are on to something. Most of my sighs are those of not being in the moment. I hope my last sigh is that of a regret less life well lived. Peace, bro.

    • Yes- I’m the same why. Since righting this, I kind of am charting them. It’s not good. Reveals how discontent I am often. Glad this one hit you at the right time HD!

  • A great perspective of this wonderful poem. So Mark, how will you reclassify yourself? Rock turner? 😉 <3
    Diana xo

  • My son asks me, every time I sigh, “are you OK, Mom?” I completely relate to the sigh just before opening Fb. Ugh. There is so much more, but I’m not sure how to find a more un-travelled path at this point. Thanks, Mark.

  • Holy shit this one’s amazing, Mark. You’ve outdone yourself. Thoughtful analysis and completely relatable not only to recovery, but to life itself! Sigh. (I’m thinking it’s a happy, satisfactory sigh for the both of us… keep playing with your kids; I will too. It’s about love.) Ever forward, my friend. – DDM

  • Great piece Mark. I really connected. Walden is one of my favourite books, I love Frost, I ran a school for teenagers with challenging behaviour for ten years and a world that paddles in the shallow end is wearisome. Thanks – Andy

    • Andy – I’d love to hear more about your work with teenagers. Wow. I could benefit as a teacher by hearing from those stories I bet. Thank you!

  • Oh, how I love this post! “Your final sigh—will it be in satisfaction or distress?” I think daily about whether or not I am making a difference in this world. To my family To my clients. To the cashier at the grocery store. To the person needing to be let into traffic. Because at times it is hard. I am human. Today I feel like I am getting a cold. I am achy, my throat is sore and I have a headache. I wasn’t a great worker today. I just did what I could do but it wasn’t my best day. And yet, I think about it. I want my last sigh to be one that was because I lived a life of generosity and kindnesss. Above all, kindness.

    PS – Teachers are the best! I remember all my teachers. I remember their names, first and last. There is a book that may be out of print now called, “Moulder of Dreams” by Guy Doud. It is about a teacher who won Teacher of the Year. It is a powerful and beautiful story of the impact of a teacher in the lives of students. If you check http://www.abebooks.com you might be able to get it cheap. It is one of the most memorable books I have ever read.

    • Wow. I want to read that book! I will check it out.

      I hope you’re feeling better Birdie. I’ve found that the biggest impacts you make are not counted or known. Letting others in in traffic, being kind and generous to people on the street is often a thankless job, much like teaching. But your kindness plants seeds. Some will never blossum. But the ones that do come to fruition will then plant a thousand of their own seeds, thus making one kind gesture capable of changing the world! But there I go again…

      Wishing you the best,

      Mark

  • Dude.

    Seriously.

    This is awesome.

    First of all, I think that teachers rule. I know many. They are passionate. They care. They try to think of ways to connect with their students. But I do know that although many rebelled against the traditional, many of us enjoyed it. Not everyone teen is all YOLO and bling and snapchatting their way through life. It may seem like it! But even then, you’re planting seeds, man. I remember a ton of stuff that in the day I thought was just nonsense, and I look back now and think “yeah, they were right.” So don’t underestimate yourself and the effect you have on them!

    Second, like everyone else here, I think you nail so much in so few words – I am in awe of how you did this.

    Third, I agree that the sigh is where we are at that moment. It’s all perspective, and we have that fork in the road in so many ways during the day, small and maybe not-so-small, but we can sigh and take our pick. How it unfolds – well, that’s part of the adventure, isn’t it?

    Thanks again Mark – you crushed this one!

    paul

    • Paul! Thank you so much for your kind and generous feedback. I really appreciated reading this. I let out a major sigh of satisfcation when I did. No joke. It meant a lot to me.

  • Brilliant Mark. You have me pondering my “sigh” and it’s left me perplexed as it seems to change daily. Sigh.

  • Nice Mark,
    Isn’t it great to question the stereotypes and labels attached.

    As a fellow ‘teacher’ I have often considered my role; I am non-standard in my methodology, by nature, as a technician, and I see it my job to ‘take the horse to water’, to ‘show possible paths’, my favourite quote comes from Scrivener ‘Your most important job is perhaps to ‘create the conditions in which learning can take place’ (2005: 79).

    If you inspire your students a fraction as much as your blog readers you can’t go wrong!
    Mat

  • I love teachers!
    You must be such a wonderful teacher.
    Teachers must inspire and move children to see life in a bigger way.
    I remember I had a cute English teacher in 8th grade who inspired me to write a poem about love, and I read it to the class, with my own music behind it.
    I lost that poem, but I will always remember that class.
    One teacher inspired me to learn guitar.
    I tried with my little ones to inspire them also, to be kind, to keep trying, to love learning, to love poems and books.
    xo
    Wendy

  • Nice post, Mark. My daughter and I were discussing this poem recently as her class has to imagine choosing the common or less traveled path and write about what it was like. I still have a tough time grasping what less traveled means, but anyway, I’m glad to hear it’s still being taught. I appreciate your dedication to teaching others to turn over rocks, to look at old things and make them their own. You described this so beautifully.

  • Love your insight on this poem. As a fellow educator, my heart hears your passion for reaching kids…If only my three teens had the opportunity to spend a year with you!!!!

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