Looking Into Corners

When I lead tours at the art museum, I watch where people look. It’s almost as if they can’t help it. Their eyes latch to the focal point, perhaps a jeweled queen or a robbed magistrate. This is what the artist intended, of course. But I like to invite museum visitors to move beyond the center, to also look to the corners of the canvass. This is where you often see the everyday people—the baker and the vendor—those who live the ordinary life.

Steen, Jan, Fantasy Interior with Jan Steen and the Family of Gerritt Schouten, ca 1659

And as a young teacher, I needed the invitation to look into the perimeters of my classroom.

“You’ve got to notice all the students,” a principal once told me, “not just the squeaky wheels.”

In every classroom are students who, for one reason or another, come instantly into sharp focus. They are the loudest, richest, poorest, or smartest, the daughter of board member, the son of a recently-arrested drug lord, the kid without a leg, or those that show the biggest charm or the most volatile tempers. These are the kids who can instantly draw your eyes and attention to them, leaving everyone else out of focus—blurred around the edges and only partially discernable.

After that talk with my principal, I tried peering into the classroom corners.

“I read what you wrote about your grandma being a strong woman,” I said to Karina one day after class. “I’m curious. How did she get so strong?”

Karina’s shyness sloughed right off. Forgetting herself, she told me about her plucky grandma who had left her country to make a new life in the middle of Ohio.

“Even though she was scared,” Karina told me, “she learned a whole new language and how to cook different foods.”

That small conversation with Karina, brought her into my line of vision. When we read passages about courage, for example, I’d glance her way. And she’d be waiting, her eyes on me. We’d share a nod, and that was all it took. For that moment, the bully, the board member’s kid, the charmer, and the tantrum-thrower all faded into the background while Karina took front and center. 

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