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The Wonder of Unexpected Supply

As a teacher, I lately find myself going to the poets for professional development. I find that it’s the poets, not the pedagogy experts, who know the soul best, though why and how I’m not exactly certain. Perhaps teaching itself is a poetic endeavor; or perhaps poetry, in it’s ability to work directly on the affections, is the purest form of education. Whatever the case, I’m stuck on several lines from Robert Frost in an essay called “The Figure a Poem Makes”:

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise or the reader. For me the initial delight [with poetry] is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. I am in a place, in a situation, as if had materialized from cloud or risen out of the ground. There is a glad ecognition of the long lost and the rest follows. Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing.

There is a parallel in education here, is there not? No tears in the teacher, no tears in the student; no surprise for the teacher, no surprise for the student. But modern pedagogy, truth be told, does not accommodate this view of soul-leading. We moderns imagine surprise to be inimical to education (hence the menacing monolith of alignment and standardization), but this is not the case. Surprise is essential; it’s the sine qua non of true teaching.

For that statement to be meaningful, however, we must consider the true relationship between surprise (the good in question) and knowledge (the professed end of education). To the progressive educator, surprises thwart knowing because surprises mean unpredictability. Thus industrial education seeks their elimination through sundry means of systemization. Christianity holds a very different view: Even known things, the wisdom claims, are known loosely, “seen as through a glass darkly.” As St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.” Every moment of knowledge, it follows, brings more, not less, opportunity for surprise. Mountain range beyond mountain range, revelation beyond revelation: the vistas grow richer as we approach eternally, asymptotically, the infinity of God’s wisdom.

And don’t think I’ve abandoned Frost, here. Notice that the poet relishes “remembering something [he] didn’t know [he] knew.” Like much of real education, poetry is not an encounter with the unknown or some collision with the utterly alien. It is oftener the old made new, a “glad recognition,” as he puts it. In this place of discovery, the land of knowledge within knowledge, what results is “delight” and—I love this—“the wonder of unexpected supply.” Read it twice, three times, a thousand times: “the wonder of unexpected supply.” Isn’t that what’s missing in the modern school? Isn’t that the very joy of the Lord? Though our heads be as calloused as our heels, there is a grace in the knowledge that God and the world are better and more beautiful than we yet apprehend. We model that grace and share it with our students when we open ourselves to the mysteries in and beyond our curricula.

Of course, this imperative presents an obvious problem: If there is anything in the world you can’t put in a lesson plan, it’s your own genuine surprise. As with any grace, formulas are nowhere to be found. Still, graces can be prayed for, and we know from the Scriptures that the Grace-Giver longs for the prayers of his people. In that vulnerable posture, we expect the “unexpected supply” and anticipate the “glad recognition.” Through the small surprises—the moment the poem opens its fragrant bud, the instant arithmetic strikes us with its quiet lightning—we wait for higher and sweeter ones, delights not even Frost could imagine. The heights of heaven come closer still, and still we wonder, like C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory, what it will be “to taste at the fountainhead that stream of which even these lower reaches prove so intoxicating,” how our souls will sing when we “drink joy from the fountain of joy.”

We wait and we pray. In that posture, daring yet docile, students becomes saints, and teachers worshippers.

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