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Gardens in the Desert: Classical Educators in Local Community

The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts. - C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

During my first year as a teacher, I moved to a Manhattan neighborhood that was a subway ride away from all my friends. My neighbors and I never learned each other’s names during the two years I lived there. I waved at them from my patio and they waved back from their balcony, but only once or twice. I shared one wall with a stranger I never even met. Many Americans live this kind of life, a life in which, in Robert Frost’s words, “good fences make good neighbors.” Then, on the first day of summer vacation, I got a call from a former classmate who had moved to Arizona, where I had also just accepted a job as a teacher. “I found an apartment for you,” she said, “and it’s right next to mine.” Almost seven years later, I still live in this apartment. What has kept me there so long is that the people in my building have become some of my closest friends—and most of us are teachers.

Our Arizona neighborhood community has existed for nearly eight years. It is somewhat transient at times–people move in and out. But, since 2013, twenty-eight teachers have lived in our two little buildings on the same street, most for years at a time. Currently, there are sixteen teachers or former teachers living in these units, plus another half-dozen residents consisting of spouses, children, in-laws, friends, and roommates. Some are married, some are not; some have children, some do not. Most of us have known or gotten to know each other in more than one setting: work (mostly classical education), college, or church.

When so many classical educators choose a communal way of life, a sort of pedagogical garden begins to grow. Traditions flourish. For us this has meant folk music nights, ancient language clubs, book discussions, bonfires, and even a quarterly literary journal. Teaching well becomes a team effort. We literally hop over the hedge for lesson plan advice or to share something good/bad/hilarious a student has recently done. We exchange books and butter and spices and songs.

At the heart of this community life is a support network that is personal as well as pedagogical in nature. Whether this means last-minute babysitting, or sharing a meal made from ingredients in three separate refrigerators, or coming over to sit together after a tragedy, we are there. I like to tell people it is delightfully medieval. Ultimately, it is humanizing.

In Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, the narrator bemoans the person he became after purchasing an automobile. While I still have and need a car, I have learned how life does improve when so many of the people I respect and know well are a few steps away instead of a drive away. When a great conversation about Middlemarch or a spontaneous jam session is right on the other side of my kitchen wall, the joy of learning becomes posture, not gesture. This accessibility has fostered habits in me of true leisure, the kind that Josef Pieper writes are closely tied to “the liberal arts…all forms of human activity which are an end in themselves.” I find I would rather spend my evenings reading poetry, chasing soccer balls with toddlers, or learning a song on the mandolin than sitting in front of a screen or at a bar. I want to create and cultivate for fun, not merely consume. This was often not the case even in the cultural hub of New York City, where I spent too many evenings with Hulu, a couple of beers, and overpriced takeout.

While I would still work hard to nurture good leisure habits if I did not live communally, my neighborhood encourages these good ways of life, just like attending a school that loves virtue encourages a love of virtue. If our students need to see a love of worthy things modeled every day in order for it to become a posture for them, don’t we need this, too? Communal living is one tangible way to do this. It means tending that pedagogical garden together, and gardens require daily care. During this daily care we come to see how things that are often compartmentalized into “work, church, hobbies, and home” can grow from the common soil of a healthy community. It is not unlike how we teach our students that “subjects” in school are actually all interacting parts of a greater whole. In short, living here makes me a better teacher, and being a teacher makes living here better.

People around America are “rediscovering” local community, so to speak. According to a recent article in The Atlantic by David Brooks, most people around the world, in the past and present alike, have not lived in isolated nuclear families. They have lived in clans, shared a home with their grandparents, or built a house close enough to walk to the local school. This shift can be seen as an invitation for teachers and liberal artists–an invitation to work intentionally to create communities like ours that nurture a long-lasting love for humanizing leisure and work. This particular kind of community can profoundly change your character and your whole life.

Recently my neighborhood has made a lot of music together. We’ve especially been pulling out the banjo (apartment 2), the viola and clarinet (apt. 8), the violin (apt. 4), and the guitar/harmonica combo (apt. 1, mine). This past Easter, we put on our Sunday best and surprised nearby friends by “caroling” in their front yards. Doors opened, people waved from balconies, toddlers danced–and together, we shared music that would not have existed if not for living next door to one another.

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