Is silence a good thing?
My students fear it, and I love it. My conversation with Arianna Vailas helped me to see that silence and community go hand in hand.
I always wonder what people think about during moments of silence.
I remember wondering, as a kid, what was supposed to go on when we held silence all together. It was like holding a collective community breath. We were waiting to see what was on the other side of silence. In yoga or meditation practice, you learn to hold breath to build heat in order to feel and experience a more profound release on the other side.
In high school, we held a lot of silences: for fresh anniversaries on September 11, for soldiers killed in Iraq, for classmates gone too soon (we never knew quite why). Though I’ve always liked silence, I usually spent those moments of silence wondering exactly why silence is a mode we choose to honor the dead. I could concede that the silence held power over our crowd, but the silence seemed to gain its power, for me, from its anticipatory energy, not for what it was by itself. My mind is rarely silent during a moment of silence, and I sometimes wonder if anyone’s is, and if so, what a charmed (or maybe beautifully practiced) life that person must live. I remember thinking, in high school, that if we could promise that a moment of silence would also mean a moment of reflection and intention, then the silence would matter.
Now, as a teacher and just as a person, I’m thinking: silence matters, even if we don’t use it perfectly.
The older I become, the more I crave silence. One of my main fears, as I think about even the idea of having children one day, is that I would lose the precious bits of silence that I have in my day. Since moving out of the kinds of rural spaces that abound in silence – I think of an early morning walk in Western Massachusetts, with the snow absorbing every sound until space itself becomes some cold, crystalline tunnel – and into the city, silence is harder to find, possibly more cherished.
This morning, on my commute, I thought about how little silence I afford myself. Twitter is a recent bad habit. I read it on the subway platform while I wait, sometimes for too long, for the Q train to arrive at Union Square. Though I really only follow accounts about education and society, those happen to be some of the chattiest areas of the internet right now, and this morning, they made me want to disrupt the screeches of the tracks with my own screech. It’s all noise, all distraction from what I do, I thought – and I thought, just after, that that isn’t true, that the noise was actually the motivation for what I do, not only in the classroom but also here, as a writer. From the noise, create. And in between the two: silence.
The train came sooner than I expected this morning. Greedily, I took a seat. A few stops down, I looked down the car, full of nurses and doctors and patients and construction workers and teachers headed uptown to the hospitals, the job sites, and the schools where they work. All of these people are literally and figuratively surrounded by noise all day long. I pulled out my headphone – it was early Kanye this morning – and noticed that the car was absolutely silent. At least thirty people stood and sat with me in a crowded space, but no one talked. Some would call this the end of society, but to me, it was a miracle, because it showed me that even though it seems like no one holds space for silence, we’ve all made a compact that we will, together, publicly, let the metal sausage casing hold us in and keep all our noise out before until spill out again one, two, five, ten minutes and ten, twenty, fifty blocks later. My favorite part about living in Brooklyn is that I get to carry everything into the subway car and release it again, four miles away, when I mount the stairs at Metropolitan Avenue. Even when I fill that with music or a podcast or an audiobook, the silence that time creates by separating me from my work and my life gives everything a chance to settle, or the latent idea a moment to activate, or the problem a chance to diffuse.
The whole experience drew me back to my conversation the other night with Arianna Vailas, an English teacher in Connecticut. Arianna and I talked about silence. She said: “I love when there’s silence and then someone speaks up, maybe someone who’s more shy or quiet than the others, and the others really encourage them.” I brought up a class I taught last week, a final discussion on Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It was an example of exactly what she’d just named: during the class, one or two students would speak, and then: silence. After the brief pause, another might speak. A pause. Then another. Morrison’s text is so complex, and students took one step at a time; from the outside, the pace might look slow, even excruciatingly so. From inside, though, it felt almost otherworldly, like a space full of energy, or potential energy, pinging around and then building inside. Each silence anticipated the revelation to come.
Certainly, not every student in the room might’ve been part of that deep thinking. There’s no way to know, because there’s no way to know what’s happening during silence, only clues like facial expression or body posture (both of which are terrible metrics). As a teenager, that not-knowing frustrated me, because I could never tell if the silence meant something or not, if we were all on the same page, if we were doing what we were supposed to do. As a teacher, though, I’ve learned that the silence pretty much always means something. In moments like the ones Arianna’s describing, the silence means thinking, reflection, enthusiasm, and engagement, at least for most students. In other moments, it means disengagement, fatigue, or even frustration, and that kind of silence, too, has something important on its other end. Maybe what awaits at the end of silence isn’t a revelation, but the silence still asks for a pivot, brings with it a new direction.
Students and adults often fear silence. I think it’s because we don’t know what we’re supposed to do with it, and we’re afraid of how it’ll be broken. Silence demands difference on its other side in order to be powerful: it commands us to do something with it, but we don’t get any directions of what we’re supposed to do – it’s like an open-ended assignment. If we’re Thich Nhat Han, we’re thinking “What you need, what we all need, is silence. Stop the noise in your mind in order for the wondrous sounds of life to be heard. Then you can begin to live your life authentically and deeply.” But then we’re thinking: where are the wondrous sounds? Which ones are wondrous, and which ones should we be ashamed of? Silence doesn’t feel intrinsically valuable. I’d guess that the more open-minded a person is, and the more drawn they are to ambiguity, the more likely they are to enjoy, or even crave, silence.
Most people, even very well-adjusted people, have an instinct to interrupt silence, though. I have a number of students every year who tend to take up airtime during class discussions when they have little to say. When we meet to talk about their work in class, if I bring up this situation, the student will usually say, “I don’t like silence, so I want to get something started.” For adults, the same feeling compounds with a fear of inefficiency: “My time is already wasted often enough, so let’s not waste time thinking things over when we could move through the issue at hand.” As a person who feels similarly about small talk and likes to crush it with efficient, focused direction as often as possible, I can’t fault any person who has that thought. And yet, like my own prejudice, I do think it’s one worth challenging. Silence is inefficient only if we limit our definition of if and when it holds value.
For her delight in silence, Arianna is not a teacher who only prizes the individual or silent experience. Her most meaningful classroom experience, after all, stands out in her memory because of the “relationships and community” she experienced in it. In Ms. Sears’ sophomore English class, she felt “like [students] were a team.” Just as we need to question the idea that silence is inefficient, so too do we need to question that idea that it is antisocial. Silence and togetherness do fit together. Again, silence is antisocial only if we limit our definition of if and when it holds value.
Silence is always valuable, because it creates a bridge between noise and action.
This sounds as if I’m taking an efficiency mindset to silence anyway, but I promise I’m not. The action – the exhale – at the conclusion of silence need not mark a sudden change delivered by deep, productive thought. The action might be release. The action might just be a step back into the action of the day, with a different mindset. To carry forward to the classroom: sometimes a student breaks a silence with a deeply resonant comment or question… but sometimes she breaks the silence with a joke or an involuntary sneeze. Silence isn’t always profound, and sometimes it can even signal something we would call “bad” (the disengaged kind of silence). We don’t always, or maybe even often, use silence well. When we do, the silence is transformative. When we don’t, it’s still transformative. It takes us to a new place. If we see silence to be always valuable, the action that follows it can be always meaningful.