Teaching a Wedding Guest

In Coleridge‘s “Rime“, the narrating voice, the Ancient Mariner, has an arduous task to accomplish: telling his moralizing tale to a young man who is about to attend a matrimony, The Wedding Guest. As I said, it is a very arduous task indeed, because a Wedding Guest is usually not in the mood of listening to stories, in particular if recounted by a strange old man. How can it be otherwise, when you are just about to join your friends at a fabulous party to have a jolly good time! The Wedding Guest, in fact, symbolizes that transient, light, thoughtless, “I can do everything” moment of life, which is youth. When you are thus young this is more or less your vision of life: a never-ending party and no annoying adult voice has to break the magnificence of  this spell. However, the Mariner is not at all intimidated, but rather, provides us teachers with some interesting tips on how capturing the attention of our students willy-nilly. Actually, his first attempt turns out to be a failure, because the Mariner decides upon using his (scarce) force to stop the Wedding Guest and “holds him with his skinny hand“, which, in case you choose to follow his example in a moment of despair, is against the law, remember. Besides, the Wedding Guest is younger and therefore stronger than the Mariner, in fact he reacts violently, yelling at him “Hold off! Unhand me!” and after setting himself free from the old man’s grasp, he sneers at him defiantly, reminding him the arrogant supremacy of his youth. For him the Mariner is only a “grey-beard loon“. That wasn’t the right way. It never is. However, when you are young, you are so absorbed by your frantic life made relations, the new experiences of the world outside etc. that it happens not to pay the due attention to meaningful details. The Wedding Guest, in fact, had noticed the strange vitality of the Mariner ‘s look in a man so old, but he had not pondered enough about it and incredulously he finds himself paralyzed by the Mariner’s charm, who “holds him with his glittering eye” and “has his will”. Now that the young man stands “still”  the Mariner can finally tell him his story and it’s only in that stillness that the boy will be able to enjoy and understand the narration and its moralizing intent: a trip, a storm, an albatross, Life in Death, sin and final repentance. Is the Mariner a wizard then? Not at all, he represents the poet, that with his creative power can produce that “suspension of disbelief ” that makes everybody listen “like a three years’ child“. In that suspension, the young and the adult can meet, talk, interact. This is the point, maybe also the teacher’s effort, just like that of the poet/Mariner, should aim at creating that moment of amazement in order to involve our young Wedding Guests more. I know, it’s not easy and it can’t happen every day, but when we eventually succeed in finding the words that breach their boredom and apathy and we start to see that “glitter” in their eyes, well, it’s absolutely amazing. That’s why we teach.

12 thoughts on “Teaching a Wedding Guest

  1. I am now that grey-beard loon, but would I have listened to a life-time’s experience and wisdom expounded by myself when I was the same age as that thrill-seeking young wedding guest? I suspect not.

    If teaching as a vocation has taught me anything it’s that nobody really learns from exhortation (however sadder and wiser the guest appears at the end of The Rime after his ear-bashing) — it’s personal experience that is the best teacher. Kids understand best when they get their fingers burnt, however slightly, more than all the preaching in the world.

    • I totally agree: the best teacher is experience. And ok, a kid understands best when he gets his fingers burnt, but if there is someone who tells him to be careful, the kid anyway will prefer to burn his fingers, but the next time he is going to take care of what that “someone” is trying to say.
      That “someone” is the Teacher, and I mean the real Teacher, the one with the big “T”.
      There are a lot of teachers who are not even worthy of being called like that, they just go to school, they just tell what they are paid for – they tell their “pappardella”, like we say in Italy – they go home and at the end of the day the thought of having taught something to someone, the thought of having transmitted something does not even brush against their mind. Nobody “does not need no education” from these “teachers”.
      But “the big T” is completely obsessed by that thought, he wants to awake all of the apathetic mannequins he sees everyday in front of him, trying always and searching every moment that “glittering eye”.
      And finding the glittering eye is not just to teach something, it is more. It is to find someone to discuss with, it is someone who opens his mind, it is someone who makes questions and looks for answers, it is to make someone not just accept the status quo of the world around him.
      That is the teacher. The big one.

  2. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a piano teacher as well as a retired school teacher, and wouldn’t have followed either vocation if I didn’t see the point in them.

    But I’m also pragmatic, and know that youth often feels it knows best and sometimes needs to learn from its own mistakes rather than taking the word of an older person.

    I also know that we rarely see the fruits of our teaching, that when I see past students as adults what they’ve taken from my teaching is not something I’ve consciously taught or remembered teaching. It’s then that I remember what a privilege and a responsibility we have to teach as best we can and to respect the individual.

  3. I’m getting ready to teach this amazing classic to my AP students. Your post reminds me again of how much better students learn to care about the subject at hand when we care how we teach it– the old mariner instructed the wedding guest with passion, which made a huge difference.
    Thanks for the follow!
    Blue Skies,
    Cricket Muse

  4. I have to confess that I’ve loved this poem for years and have never really given a thought to the wedding guest. Thanks for your thoughtful analysis and your absolutely timely connection to the profession of teaching.

  5. The love for study and for a subject is also transmitted by the teacher. The student understands if the teacher likes his subject: from his way of explaining, organizing the lesson, and relating with the students. In my opinion, the good teacher is who knows how to make students love the subject that he teaches.

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