A few years ago, my school brought a young man named Liam Robinson to America. He hails from Lincolnshire, England, and makes his way by teaching English longsword dancing and performing folk songs he's gathered from his home country and from every country in which he's found a home in song.
We'd flown him to the center of the United States so that he could be the center of what my school calls Midwinter Week, a time before spring break in which we all—faculty, students, sixth graders through twelfth graders—concentrate together on a single course of study; it is a week of serious play. The year before, a NASA-funded atmospheric physicist had helped us understand climate change. The year before that, the Canadian flutist Chris Norman and his ensemble led us to participate in the history of the French Voyageurs through poetry and song.
Liam began his week-long residency by describing his childhood in a small fishing village, where as a boy he discovered the thrilling sound of the accordion and found that the songs he heard one night on a wax cylinder his parents owned (recorded by an old man in a neighboring village in 1870) spoke more truthfully about his own life in 1992 than anything he'd heard on the radio.
His love of history, his love, that is, of the local preserved in song, rendered him an outsider to those of his own age. "Before long," he told us, "I became interested in wondering if I was alone."
He began performing the old songs at country dances, and talking about what he loved to whomever would hear. He began visiting other villages and, as his reputation grew, other countries, collecting songs and stories, and sharing his. He'd built a life around what he loves and what makes him different. In doing so, he's found kindred spirits everywhere.
"Midwinter spring is its own season." T.S. Eliot wrote in "Little Gidding," It is a season, in Eliot's Four Quartets, in which opposites are reconciled, a "still point" where the present and the past are a single seed grown already to fruition. "The end is where we start from," he says, later on, at the start of the final section.
School (in the sense of leisure, which is to say, serious play) is where we come to find our end. What were we born for? What is it within us that, in flourishing, will carry us toward others even as it carries us toward the center toward which every matter tends?
It's a fragile thing, making such a discovery about oneself, and more fragile still to keep oneself in a state of flourishing when the tune of the time does not chime with the one that you've found. But that is precisely what school is: out of time. Every moment is a kind of emergency.
"These tools," Liam said to us that first morning, gesturing toward his squeezeboxes and wooden swords, "they are tools to help us not to worry about what the rest of the world thinks."