Silences in Teaching

Les voix du silence dans l’académie

Susan Drain

I think I will start my writing classes from now on with a new assignment. Write your obituary.

In studying and writing obituary, we will confront the master narratives society prescribes for all its historical and cultural accounts, narratives still often gender- and class-bound. In other words, obituaries are fiction: selected, shaped, and crafted to tell a story, and to make that story the authoritative one. These little human accounts are the last word spoken to, against, and into the great silence that our culture maintains is death. In universities, we are doubly challenged to speak of death. For all the media evidence to the contrary, young people cannot imagine it as ever happening to them, while we elders feel it looming, and look away. We think of death as happening to us, not as something we do.

Unlike death, however, dying is not silent. Dying is articulation.

I have watched how the dying assert themselves, if we let them: they question, if we listen; they explain, if we attend. They engage not only in the articulation of speech, but in the articulation of relationship: it is not a linguistic coincidence that to remember is to reconnect the members of that entity. Against the looming silence, they articulate their own narratives of individuality and community with words, sometimes with photographs Sometimes they assemble mementos of work or passion. They reweave threads of family. If reconciliation is not possible, acknowledgement may suffice; loose ends are often an inevitable part of the fabric. As they articulate their own dying, their family and friends are prompted to compose and revise their own narratives.

Being a palliative care volunteer is as great a privilege as teaching, and even more humbling. Rare is the teacher who names that silence, yet without it, our world will chatter itself into oblivion. That silence demands, not what, but why are we learning. What will last? What will matter?