ONE by one, like leaves from a tree,
All my faiths have forsaken me;
But the stars above my head
Burn in white and delicate red,
And beneath my feet the earth
Brings the sturdy grass to birth
I who was content to be
But a silken-singing tree,
But a rustle of delight
In the wistful heart of night,
I have lost the leaves that knew
Touch of rain and weight of dew.
Blinded by a leafy crown
I looked neither up nor down—
But the little leaves that die
Have left me room to see the sky;
Now for the first time I know
Stars above and earth below.
“Leaves” by Sara Teasdale
I stumbled across “Leaves” by Sara Teasdale one afternoon in mid-October. After a quick glance, the poem left a bittersweetness in my mouth until I read it again–and then again. The first stanza contains both the harshness of time and the hope of renewal. That hope hinges on the line: “But the stars above my head/Burn white and delicate red.” Even though the leaves fall from the trees like one’s “faiths,” the speaker turns their gaze upward in a new way. The leaves make room for a clearer view of the sky, which burns with brilliant stars. Not only does the speaker look upward with fresh eyes, they also turn to the earth and discover a “sturdy grass.” In fact, the poem progresses so that the speaker realizes their “leafy crown” had blinded them to those beautiful stars and the flourishing grass. When all the leaves were present, she could not see the sky and the earth in their fullness.
You might be wondering why I am analyzing this poem. It’s not simply because I am a first-year English teacher who loves poetry. Rather, this poem offers a key to understanding change, that uncomfortable reality that hits all of us no matter how much we barricade ourselves.
In my own experience, change has been hitting me in full swing these past three months. As a new English and Religion middle school teacher in Phoenix, Arizona, I have passed through the fiery heat of Arizona’s August and landed in the cooler temperatures of October. In the beginning, everything was so new: my school, my students, the weather, my housemates, the cacti everywhere, and that demanding switch from college student to teacher. Fortunately, I have the support of my program, ACE (Alliance for Catholic Education), my housemates in ACE, and caring friends. Yet no matter the preparation, nothing can fully prepare you for the first year of teaching. Every day presents you with surprises and new twists. As a middle school teacher, I can say honestly my job is never, ever boring!
Amidst all the change, Teasdale’s poem made me pause in a way I hadn’t before. Why is change so hard for us? Like the speaker in the poem, there have been many times throughout these months when I have felt as though all the leaves of my “faiths” had forsaken me. Even so, I would not exchange these months of teaching for something easier. I love my students, and when one day is hard (usually Mondays) the next day can be maybe slightly better (or a whole lot), because I see what needs to be done with a sharper vision.
Only a few months ago I was at Notre Dame attending classes for ACE, surrounded by lush green trees. Days came and went, and suddenly the summer had ended just like the four years of undergrad. Endings can cause us to grow anxious and want to cling to the past with tightly fastened hands.
College provides such a unique time for intellectual engagement and building relationships. A friend in ACE and I were discussing how teaching has demanded a strong shift from a more self-focused time in college to the self-giving nature of teaching. While that self-focused time in college is not wrong (more a result of spending hours studying and thinking for one’s own education), we had not seen how much time we had to ourselves in college until we started teaching. She and I laughed about the difference between our concerns senior year of college and our concerns now. Those years at Notre Dame were wonderful and truly a gift, but I never internalized the enormity of that gift until I left it behind.
As a proud Program of Liberal Studies major, I loved spending hours reading philosophy or poetry by the lakes and discussing ideas over dinner on a daily basis. In fact, I truly do miss those times and struggle to keep up my own reading. Now that I have been “uprooted” from Notre Dame and put in Arizona, the focus has shifted completely from my own intellectual development to my students’ growth. Some of my students find reading almost impossible and avoid it at all costs. Others genuinely love reading and look for more challenge. Either way, this time with them has caused the leaves to fall from my own vision and has opened my outlook to their needs.
Maybe the season of fall has inspired this reflection (although in Arizona, fall is nonexistent). The falling of “leaves” in our lives may cause us to worry, until we are forced to look up and down in a new way. We cannot grow into old gnarly trees that never shed their leaves, closing in on themselves. We should instead welcome falling leaves as the seasons of life that come and go, making room for a wider view of the stars and the ground at our feet.
Sarah Ortiz is a former Program of Liberal Studies major from the graduating class of 2019. She served as Rover editor-in-chief from 2017-2018.