“And yet thy heart / The lowliest duties on herself did lay.” -William Wordsworth, in his poem “Milton,” which praises the old poet for his “virtue,” his “freedom” and “power”–and his willingness to work.
In India, a friend told me there were two ways to brush your teeth: you could try to distract yourself, try to get past the task while doing something else–or you could pay attention to it, feel the brush, feel the water as you rinsed, and see it as something worth doing on its own.
That reminds me of another moment in India. After their evening study hall, the senior students were supposed to sweep their classroom floor, and most of the time they didn’t want to. There were about thirty in the class. They would sit, chatting, after study hall had ended. Then one would slip off as though he had “forgotten,” then another would slip off, then half of them would be gone and the rest didn’t intend to get stuck doing the work for everyone.
One of the teachers was a grandmother, a matriarch who’d guided the school for decades. One night she noticed the last students leaving the classroom, and looked in to see that the floor wasn’t swept. (Maybe grandmothers always notice that kind of thing). She stepped into the room. One of the students saw her, and came back to see what she was doing. The broom was an Indian style broom, about as long as my arm, so to sweep with it you had to crouch down or kneel. The grandmother had the broom and she was kneeling. The student rushed up to her, insisting, “Akka–akka–I’ll sweep akka!” (“Akka” means “elder sister.” It was the respectful, familiar way that students addressed older women). The woman smiled and shook her head. “I’ll sweep,” she said.
Other students, hearing the first one, came back. The whole class came back. And the grandmother didn’t let go of the broom until she’d moved, slowly on her old joints, across the whole floor. The students watched. Then two of them helped her to her feet, and she let one of them put the broom away. She walked out from the room.
If I had done that, I think I would have been trying to shame the students. To push them to see that if they didn’t pick up the work someone else would have to. But I’ve thought a lot about that woman, and I think she was doing something better. She wanted the room clean. Perhaps wanting the room clean, wanting that clearly, meant that she wanted to sweep. Or perhaps not: perhaps what she wanted wasn’t her focus just then, the room was. I wish she had said something before walking out, something I could think about. She didn’t. If she had, I wonder if it would have been, “There’s no shame in being one who works.” Perhaps, better, she would have said that there is pride.
Sometimes we think of certain work as “lowly,” as beneath us. Wordsworth says that the noblest hearts remember to kneel and sweep. Perhaps that connection between pride, position, privilege and work can help to heal us, in little moments and in big ones. Last year, a student pointed out that Macbeth seems more interested in being king than in “king-ing;” in doing the work of a king. Perhaps (the student said) that’s where all the bloodshed began. I wonder what would have happened if Macbeth had found worth and pride in a broom instead of in his ambition. I wonder.
And I’m looking forward to brushing my teeth tonight.