“I started doodling ideas at odd hours, and I found that drawing a webcomic was an excellent way to avoid working on other seemingly more serious things. Better still, I discovered that research was an excellent way to put off working on the comic that I was drawing in order to procrastinate.”
-Sydney Padua, preface for The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage
Sometimes I’ll see a student watching out a window or staring at the grains of wood in a table. They’re ‘lost in thought’—I like that phrase. As though thoughts have mountains and rivers and caves (they do), and in going out to get lost in them we can be more than we were before. Sometimes I won’t ask what they’re thinking. I don’t want to interrupt. Sometimes, when I do ask, they’ll say “nothing.” That can be because they don’t want to share, which makes perfect sense, but it can also be because they weren’t thinking about whatever the class was discussing, they weren’t “focusing on what they should,” and they’ve been taught to assume that makes their thoughts “nothing” at all. And of course it doesn’t. And of course, this isn’t only a story about a teacher watching students grow. Usually, in my mind, I’m a teacher and a student and a cook and a dishwasher, and sometimes I find a window.
In The View from the Cheap Seats, Neil Gaiman suggests you “trust your obsessions.” When I talked to David Mochel, he asked me, ‘Right before bed, what do you think about without meaning to? What do you think about when you’re not thinking about anything at all?’ The answer, back then, was students and classes, stories and lessons and exercises that helped us understand things in new ways. That’s probably part of why being a teacher was a good fit. I’d like to keep practicing how to hold the reigns of my mind, how to direct myself toward one trail of thought or another, but I’d also like to unharness the horses and let them run. Maybe they’d head toward water, a spring I hadn’t found. Maybe they’d head toward a meadow, or up a ridge from which we could see a long, long way, or over the fields with the joy of moving. Maybe they’d roll in the dust.
As far as I can tell we’re always thinking about something. When a student stops listening to our conversation their thoughts don’t disappear: they take a turn toward somewhere else. They find something else. I think it’s good to notice where we’re in the habit of going, but I think it’s also good to doodle because you’re procrastinating, to research because you’re putting off doodling. There’s something to trust in where we do not mean to go. I don’t know what I think about now, right before bed when I don’t mean to think about anything. It’s hard to tell in the confusion of these months. But the next time I go wandering, instead of asking myself to come back, I’m going to try to look around and what’s there.