“Hello Ms. Lillis.” Grigor was, as usual, first to arrive in my choir room. Slightly out of breath from the stairs, he paced awkwardly in front of me – body parallel to the desk but eyes fixed on me. Without a break in my typing, I glanced up from my computer and smiled. “Hi Grigor.” He continued to pace and I continued to type, hoping desperately to finish the task before class started. A few other students drifted in. Rayna sat down at the piano and began playing the accompaniment to a piece called “Inscription of Hope.”
“Yes Grigor?” I said, still typing.
“This is one of my favorite pieces. It is one of my very favorites.”
“Yep, it’s pretty piece.” I smiled without looking up. So close to finishing …
“Do you want to know why it’s my favorite?”
I sighed, smiled again, and paused. “Why is it your favorite, Grigor?” I said, looking up at him. He was talking to me from another one of his awkward positions, the lower half of his body pointing one direction with the upper half rotated about forty-five degrees.
“It’s the melody. It’s so beautiful. It reminds me of some old Russian war tunes. And they are really beautiful.”
The task in front of me forgotten, I stared at him with a mixture of confusion and incomprehension.
“It reminds you … of Russian war tunes?”
“Yes. Really lovely.”
He looked at me a few moments more, the faintest breath of a smile playing across his face, and then turned to get his music folder. By now, the missing majority of my choir were streaming in the door and I had less than thirty seconds to wrap my mind around the thought that was about to slip away. Namely this: that a song called “Inscription of Hope,” which is composed by an American, the lyrics of which were taken from the wall of a Jewish hiding place in Nazi Germany, is beautiful to my Bulgarian student because it reminds him of Russian war tunes. Wait – what? Is it just me, or was I staring at veritable onion of irony?
But that’s not actually the thought that was slipping away. I wrestled a bit more to find it underneath all the layers. At the core, I found a tiny black hole of questions: what do we bring? how much does it matter? is it possible to let go?
To any experience we bring ourselves. We have nothing but. Yet, who are we, each? What is hidden inside each mind, each heart? Former happenings, former responses, former understandings, former feelings; memories that freeze frame into statues and eventually morph in the acid rain of time. Each new significant experience is greeted with the momentum gathered by all that went before. An invisible force drawing us forward. Every moment, the new is exploded by the old and we inhabit a present perpetually carved by our past.
“I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining,
And I believe in love, even when there’s no one there.
And I believe in God, even when he is silent,
I believe through every trial, there is always a way.”
One song, an array of experiences. Grigor thought nostalgically of Russian war tunes though he was born on the edges of Russia in a post-Soviet world. And what about Ranya at the piano? She’s Rwandan, born on the heels of the genocide. What does she think of when she plays this piece? How about Nell, the bouncy American girl who is living overseas for the first time? What did she bring with her?
In a fleeting moment, I am reminded of the complex depth of life. I do not know my students. That is, I do know what lies inside of them – what they have individually brought to my classroom or how they will understand this present moment together. I know that both matter. Whether or not it is possible to let the past go and reshape the future, I do not know.
I teach. And that by faith.