What was your favorite book as a child?”
A rather innocuous question when it was posed by Stephen Tchudi to my Adolescent Literature class at Michigan State in, what, 1973? But there we were, about twenty undergrads in one of our first English Education classes, not sure what to say. I knew that I wasn’t about to be the first to share mine. What if someone laughed? Snickered and whispered to a neighbor?
And so we froze in silence for ten, twenty, thirty seconds. Lots of lower lips bitten, lots of eyes fixed on desktops. More time ticked by until over a minute had passed while our professor sat calmly in front of the room.
At last, one young man found the courage to sputter, “All right, all right! Mine was The Velveteen Rabbit!” We all looked with grateful eyes to the speaker who blushed and shrugged, but the seal had been broken, and now responses flowed, accompanied by nods and smiles.
When we’d all shared, Dr. Tchudi asked another question. “What were you thinking a few minutes ago when no one was speaking?”
Answers came more quickly now. We talked about the pressure we felt, the mental tussle of whether or not to volunteer. After we discussed the experience for a few minutes, our teacher explained why he hadn’t pierced the silence.
“It’s far too easy to let your students off the hook when you ask a question,” he said. “We’re so afraid of the quiet in a classroom that we either go on to another student or answer the question ourselves. Don’t be afraid to wait.”
Those words came back to me a few years later when I was about two weeks into my first class at Navajo Community College which today is known as Diné College. The only Anglo in the room, I had been growing more and more frustrated with the lack of participation from my students. They paid polite attention when I addressed the group, but I couldn’t seem to generate much discussion. Not sure what to do, I asked Lawrence, one of my Navajo colleagues, to come and observe our next class. I was hoping that he would find insights that I just didn’t have.
I started our discussion the next day by asking a question about one of our readings, and when I called on one of my students and she didn’t answer immediately, I looked to someone else. This happened over and over, much as it had in our previous meetings, before one of my students raised his hand and offered an opinion. I was ever so grateful, but things didn’t go any better after that.
After class, I looked at Lawrence and threw up my hands in exasperation. “See what I mean?”
My friend laughed softly. “Let me see if I can explain this to you,” he said. “You asked Betty a question. To answer it, she had to hear it in English, translate it into Navajo, form an answer in Navajo, and then translate that into English before she could speak. And you gave her how much time?”
“About half a second.”
“Less than that, I think. Just give them time. They want to discuss things with you if you let them. Don’t be afraid to wait.”
There they were, Dr. Tchudi’s words! How could I have forgotten? I was thousands of miles and a few years removed from that classroom in Morrill Hall, a callow stranger in a culture much different than the one I had grown up in, and yet, Lawrence was giving me exactly the same advice as my professor had. The next day, I opened our conversation by asking a question and sitting back, trying to be as patient as I could be. That wait seemed interminable, but I’m sure it was no more than ten seconds. Just as I was about to move on to someone else, my student offered an answer. Another raised her hand and then another and another. My teaching changed forever on that day.
Of course, silence isn’t just golden in the classroom. It plays such a vital part of our everyday lives, but how often do we wait for someone we love to finish a thought before making a point of our own? How often do we let their ideas marinate in our minds before we speak our own piece? And even when we’re alone, how often do we surround ourselves with quiet, turn off our televisions, our computers and phones, the radios in our cars? How often do we take ourselves to a garden or a woods and simply sit with our thoughts and the ambient sounds of nature? In my case, I don’t think it’s nearly enough, but I’m working on it.
And with that, I’ll be quiet now.