Silence and Speech

A few months ago, my mom told me a great story about one of her new students.  The girl had only had a few lessons, so the family was still very much adjusting to the routine, and my mom frequently had to stop the lesson to explain the reason for a technique or illuminate a fuzzy concept.  At one point, the girl gently laid her hand on my mom’s arm, and with a disarming giggle, said, “You kind of talk too much!”

Michiko Yurko, another of my mentors, told me that in college the hierarchy of music lessons had been explained to them as follows, proceeding from greatest to least:

  1. The student plays.

  2. The student talks.

  3. The teacher plays.

  4. The teacher talks.


In other words, the time the teacher spends talking should be the smallest fraction of the lesson.  I can what great value this has – the Chinese proverb comes to mind – but I doubt whether I’ve ever taught a lesson this way.  I have such a problem keeping my infinite wisdom to myself.  It’s difficult to know when to stop.

A few days ago, we were discussing Of Mice and Men in class.  Crooks, a crippled black farmhand, had just gone from enthusiastic about the idea of going in on a farm with Lenny and George, to dispassionate and uninterested.  The students couldn’t understand why.  We read again from the first section, where they’re excitedly making plans, to the middle, when Curley’s wife walks in and threatens to have Crooks lynched on the strength of her testimony, to the end when he calls after Candy, “Forget about it.  I wouldn’t want to do nothin’ like that.”

In a flash of inspiration, I asked them, “Have you ever liked somebody who didn’t like you back?”  Most of them nodded, some more perceptibly than others.  “How do you respond when you think they don’t care as much as you do?”  I mimicked a spurned loved: “Oh, it’s okay that you didn’t call.  I don’t really care whether you do or not.  No, I don’t have feelings for you or anything.”  Suddenly, it was clear.  “Crooks did want to go to the farm!  He just thought they’d never let him do it, so he pretended like he didn’t care anymore.”

But, for every helpful anecdote like this, it seems there are two or three that go right over their heads, or worse, cause them to slump down in their seats with boredom.  Usually it’s something a little too esoteric for them – a historical or world event, a personal story they just can’t relate to.  I find myself wondering why I can’t just stop myself from gabbing all class long.

The most helpful antidote to this disease, of course, is to be in a class with a teacher who suffers from the same affliction.  My recent summer course was the most extreme example: the professor would literally ask a question, then continue to talk as the hands that had eagerly gone up slowly sank down again, in despair of ever being called on.  It was torture of the worst kind: fascinating concepts, lots of stimulating reading, and almost no chance to share.  When someone did get called on, he would be so afraid of losing his chance to speak that he’d imitate the professor, talking for a long period and quelling the possibility of any real discussion.

I try to remember that experience when I’m leading a discussion.  There are times when I’m presenting new material and have to be the center of attention, but there are many more times when I could easily let the students reach their own conclusions, which would be far more powerful than being spoon-fed them.  To paraphrase Abba Pambo: If my silence is of no help to them, neither will my words be.