The Quality of Your Listening

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The Quality of Your Listening

Those days come back to me with absolute clarity, the merciless authority of detail, a precision so rarefied because it is absent from almost all of my other memories. Mostly, the past reveals itself to me in a kind of hazy unfolding, edges blurred against the sharp intensity of the present. But not those particular days, which I could recount for you with total accuracy, even though they were primarily days of waiting, moments stretched out just a bit too long, the persistent feeling of hunger, the taste of so many cigarettes in my mouth after all these years. And because that was and is the only real trauma I have ever lived through, those days have about them the air of exception, a separate rhythm held apart from the regular cadence of my life.

And for all these reasons, I walked into that classroom for the first time in eight years totally unprepared to teach. I remember the book I had assigned, Robbe-Grillet’s “The Voyeur.” I had barely finished reading the final pages just minutes before I entered the room, and I remember distinctly thinking to myself, “I have nothing to teach you people about this text. For all I care, we can sit here for an entire hour and a half in complete silence.” Never had I been so willing to turn it all over, to truly and profoundly not give a shit.

Many years earlier, when I was observed teaching, my colleague had written in her report: “Strong teacher. Well prepared. Clearly does not feel comfortable with silence in the classroom.” It was the most perfect description. At the time, I had prepared so well, I could have performed the entire class session all on my own: my fishing questions, their anticipated answers, my gentle prodding them forward, deeper, into more reflective and analytical positions. I hated the silence of a classroom. It always felt so long and drawn out, so heavy and unpredictable. And it was easy to avoid. What good was silence anyway when there were always so many words to use?

And so, I stood in front of them, Robbe-Grillet in hand. They looked at me, their blinking eyes watching, and I asked the widest, most expansive question I could possibly come up with: “So, what did you think of the book?” And then I shut my mouth and waited. And waited some more. Under normal circumstances, I would have tolerated this silence for about two seconds. I would have reframed the question, homed in more specifically on Robbe-Grillet’s style, or the novel’s strangeness, or all of the ways in which the text subverts certain literary conventions. But not this time. This time, I was depleted, and I was prepared to enter that silence wholeheartedly, just throw down tarps and camp out there forever.

And then, the most amazing thing happened, so obvious in retrospect, and yet it came as this unexpected, gracious gift: a voice, not my own, offering something up to that silence. He said, “It was hard to follow, but maybe Robbe-Grillet is trying to scramble time for some reason.” And I just kept quiet, staring back at this little voice. And then another one chimed in. And they just took that silence and turned it into sound, and I just listened to it. A new kind of listening for me, because it wasn’t an impatient listening, the kind where you essentially bide your time, eagerly awaiting your moment of intervention. It was just listening for the sake of listening. And I heard something different in it, something I had not been prepared for. As strange as it sounds, what I heard was the total atmosphere of having relinquished control, of having given oneself over to things as they were, to events as they happened. No one was at the helm of our class. It felt more like we were cast out to sea, drifting, not exactly aimlessly, but in the way that the elements move you along when you no longer struggle against them to keep the whole vessel upright. Of course, it was just a college class, nothing earth shattering, but I will say that it changed everything about my approach to teaching, and also about what it means to listen in a certain way.

I remember once hearing an interview with Breyten Breytenbach, the South African writer who had been imprisoned for his anti-apartheid activities. He described the prison in Pretoria, famously called, “Beverly Hills,” where every night, the prisoners would sing to each other, often in unison, their voices mingling, preserving in sound the fractured vestiges of humanity that the prison was surely designed to destroy. But on the nights before a man was scheduled to hang, he alone would sing in his cell. According to Breytenbach, on those nights, you could feel something change in the “quality of the listening,” as everyone strained to hear the condemned man’s last song. I imagine the haunting echo of that song, as if the condemned man understood something that the rest of them did not, as if he already sung from the place of that death that awaited him in the morning.

I think of that listening, that urgent and unbearable listening, attuned to something in the sound that exists beyond the scope of knowledge. A listening that bears witness to the profound lack of control, to all the things that one does not yet know and could never prepare for in any case. There is clearly a world of difference between the circumstances of Breytenbach’s reverent listening and whatever it was that happened in my classroom that afternoon. But having momentarily accepted the unpredictability of it all, I can say that without a doubt, it was the freest listening I have ever experienced.

-By Jacqueline Abrams

2 Comments On This Topic
  1. Maya Kesrouany posted
    November 27, 2012 at 11:38 am

    Incredibly accurate and so profoundly you. Just Beautiful

  2. Sarah posted
    November 27, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    I love this : It felt more like we were cast out to sea, drifting, not exactly aimlessly, but in the way that the elements move you along when you no longer struggle against them to keep the whole vessel upright. Beautiful imagery.


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