Listening Walk

"Today we're going to do something fun," I tell my class.  With these words, I immediately have their attention.  "What?  Whaaaaaat?" they murmur in anticipation, to me and to each other.

"Not telling yet," I say.  "Come on, let's go."  They are abuzz.  And for young, spontaneous students, they are surprisingly hung up on protocol: "Should we bring our backpacks?  What about purses?  Can I wear my sweatpants in the hallway?"  No, fine, and I don't care.  I lead them down the steps to the computer lab.  "Sign on and open a new blank document," I say.  When the clicking stops and all eyes are on me, I begin:

"We're going to take a walk around the school.  Follow me, and don't lag too far behind.  The purpose of this walk is to listen.  There will be absolutely no talking; just listen to all the sounds you hear.  Try to remember as much as you can."

Before they can ask me anything else -- is this going to be graded?  How long does it have to be?  Can I get my sweater from my locker? -- I turn and walk out.  They follow obediently.

Down the hall.  Quiet footsteps on the carpet.  A few muffled giggles.  We turn and go down the steps to the basement.  Is it my imagination, or are they tromping more loudly than usual?  The steps change as we move from wood to brick to linoleum: now hollow, now heavy, now squeaking.  Through the cafeteria: the hum of industrial kitchen machinery, the quiet chatter of the workers, a faint sound of the radio.

There are muffled sounds of glee and fright when I prop open the door that leads outside.  It is windy, but not cold.  Over the pavers we march, leftover autumn leaves crunching under our feet, the loud clink of metal on metal as the flag is whipped by the gales of early spring.  The trees whisper to us.  A car passes slowly, its driver turning to stare at a dozen silent high-school girls who are listening, really listening.

Back inside, back through the cafeteria.  Here comes the principal.  She smiles.  "Hello, angels."  No other words are needed; we smile back, and it is heartfelt.  We pass foreign language classrooms, a babble of incomprehensible speech.  Algebra: "four over two x squared."  The concert choir is doing vocal warmups, their voices rising and falling in an alarming rainbow of sound.

As we pass the lockers, they rattle in greeting.  We reach the elevator.  There are twelve of us, so I motion the first half of the group in and extend my hands to the others, palms out.  They giggle in understanding.  They're enjoying the game.  The elevator creaks and groans, and there are more giggles inside.  It arrives at the top floor, and we disembark.  I go back for the others.  We walk through this floor slowly, stopping at each closed classroom door to press our ears to it and strain for the thread of their discussion.  William the Conqueror.  Prepositional phrases.  The blare of a battle scene coming from a television.

Down the stairs again, leisurely.  Through the chapel, where all is silent.  Every student stops to genuflect to the altar, medal clinking, hair swishing around her shoulders.  Through the science wing, where there is a louder ring of glass on glass as the solution is mixed in the beakers.  Down the stairs, where a student says "hi" to the group and appears puzzled when we only smile in return.  Muffled laughing and whispers.  It's time to return.

Back in the lab, a magical thing happens.  The silence continues, hovering over the clicks of eleven keyboards.  Two teachers enter and carry on a conversation in stage whispers, and one student turns to glare at them.  She has learned to listen for silence today, and she will crave it all week long.