All Summer in a Day

Elizabeth Grant wonders whether her students really know the sun, and how she can best teach them.

July 1, 2010

(With apologies to Ray Bradbury. Text in italics is quoted from his short story, "All Summer in a Day")





“Do the scientists really know? Will it happen today, will it?”

“Look, look; see for yourself!”

From my fourth-floor office window, I watched my students spring forth from their underground architectural studio to the plaza above, like meerkats spilling out of their dens. They came in twos and threes, cameras swinging from their necks, balancing their models as they surged out of the door, looking up at the sky expectantly.

The sun came out.

It was the color of flaming bronze and it was very large. And the sky around it was a blazing blue tile color. And the jungle burned with sunlight as the children, released from their spell, rushed out, yelling, into the springtime.

Quickly they tilted their models in the fleeting sun, capturing the shadows that they had not seen for several cloudy, rainy days.

And then—

In the midst of their running one of the girls wailed.

Everyone stopped.

The girl, standing in the open, held out her hand.

“Oh, look, look,” she said, trembling.

They came slowly to look at her opened palm.

In the center of it, cupped and huge, was a single raindrop.

She began to cry, looking at it.

They glanced quietly at the sky.

“Oh. Oh.”

A few cold drops fell on their noses and their cheeks and their mouths. The sun faded behind a stir of mist. A wind blew cold around them. They turned and started to walk back toward the underground house, their hands at their sides, their smiles vanishing away.

Then they came back inside, hopped on their laptops (not up the stairs to my office), and begged for a time extension on their assignment.

“I had to watch my brother play football this weekend.”

“Things don’t always go as we plan.”

“The forecaster said…”

I did not respond.

“But this is the day, the scientists predict, they say, they know, the sun…”

They needed sunlight for their assignment, due the next day. They needed to observe and photograph clear shadows on their architectural models, using a sundial to simulate these shadows at various times of the day and year. They’d had two weeks already, the first week and a half of which had been unremittingly sunny.

I waited a while longer. Finally, when the sun still wasn’t forthcoming, I wrote back with some constructive advice. I told them what I would do in their position, had I painted myself into that particular corner — I would use the light from a slide projector, which is less than ideal, but better than nothing. They didn’t like my suggestion. They parsed words like “partial credit” and brought out the predictable “you didn’t say that in class”. They wanted the sun, the real sun, which would redeem them and make everything all right. And at the 11th hour, it came back out.

… they were running and turning their faces up to the sky and feeling the sun on their cheeks like a warm iron; they were taking off their jackets and letting the sun burn their arms.

“Oh, it’s better than the sun lamps, isn’t it?”

“Much, much better!”

Most of them got to see the sun for just enough time to finish the assignment as intended. But I found out later just how alien the sun still was to them, and sadly, to me, though we live on Earth and not in the near-perpetual rain of Venus, like the children in Bradbury’s story.

One of my students, a girl with clear blue eyes and smooth, straight, light brown hair, came to visit me shortly after the first test. She wanted to check which questions she’d gotten wrong, since she’d done so poorly. She was frustrated that she’d focused too much on the wrong things while studying and at first I was at a loss to help her. Finally we came to a moment of enlightenment. She was surprised that I had asked her to be able to figure out where the sun would be in the sky at various times of the day and year. I had expected that she and her peers had internalized something from recording the sun’s position during their sundial exercise. In short, I had expected her to be like Margot, an earth-born girl who knew the sun by heart.

But Margot remembered.

“It’s like a penny,” she said once, eyes closed.

“No it’s not!” the children cried.

“It’s like a fire,” she said, “in the stove.”

“You’re lying, you don’t remember!” cried the children.

My student admitted that she didn’t really understand this business about the sun. While flipping through the appendixes of the textbook looking for sun path diagrams to show her, it was clear that I still didn’t really, either. I still needed to look it up. As I lay in bed that night, I dreamt up a “sun dance” that I would do in class the next week. It was designed to help the students, and me, remember where the sun is in the summer, winter, spring and fall. Because we all know it, but we all forget. Sitting in that oversized, refrigerated auditorium where my lectures are held, there’s no way we could know what the sun is doing. So in the next class, we stood up and danced:

“It’s the winter solstice. Face south. Stretch out your arms, a little forward. Your left fist is the sun, rising above the horizon to the south of east. Lift it up through the southern sky, in front of you. The angle is low; it will reach into the building. Now raise your right hand to meet it at its highest point, and arc back down to the south of west.”

“OK, now it’s the equinox. Reach your arms straight out to the sides. On the equinoxes, the sun rises directly in the east and sets in the west. It’s now higher in the sky.”

“Now it’s the summer solstice. Stretch your left arm behind you. The sun rises north of east, shines on your back, the north face, at a low angle. As it rises to its apex, it’s even higher in the sky; now you can block it with an overhang. As it sets, the north façade receives this low, western sun.”

… they squinted at the sun until tears ran down their faces, they put their hands up to that yellowness and that amazing blueness and they breathed of the fresh, fresh air and listened and listened to the silence which suspended them in a blessed sea of no sound and no motion. They looked at everything and savored everything.

But I learned, months later, that they didn’t appreciate the dancing. They complained about it to my program chair and on my course assessments, saying it was beneath them, that I was talking down to them.

“She belongs in an elementary school classroom.”

“It is unfair to assume that college classes should involve dancing.”

“No,” said Margot, falling back.

They surged about her, caught her up and bore her, protesting, and then pleading, and then crying, back into a tunnel, a room, a closet, where they slammed and locked the door. They stood looking at the door and saw it tremble from her beating and throwing herself against it. They heard her muffled cries.

Once I learned about the students’ objections, I reacted as quickly as I could. In class, I became more subdued, more opaque. I tried to show more and explain less. I stopped dancing.

Spring came, and with it, more chances for us to get out of our windowless classroom and to see firsthand the work of architects and builders who worked with the sun in a far more direct and convincing way than my abstract explanations could ever convey. I learned the hard way, like Margot, that I can’t really describe the sun. The students have to see it for themselves.

On the last day of classes, they evaluated me again.

“Your opinions are important as we make plans for this course in the future. Please be candid about what topics and experiences you felt were useful, and which ones weren’t,” I heard myself say. What I thought was the same thing all new teachers think, “I am trying to teach you in the best way I know how. Please be kind.”

They stood as if someone had driven them, like so many stakes, into the floor. They looked at each other and then looked away. They glanced out at the world that was raining now and raining and raining steadily. They could not meet each other’s glances. Their faces were solemn and pale. They looked at their hands and feet, their faces down.


One of the girls said, “Well…?”

No one moved.

“Go on,” whispered the girl.

I left them there, filling out that one last set of bubbles before they were set free. For me, retreating down the corridor, it was a moment of reckoning; for them, a chore barely restraining them from running out into the May sunshine.

They walked slowly down the hall in the sound of cold rain. They turned through the doorway to the room in the sound of the storm and thunder, lightning on their faces, blue and terrible. They walked over to the closet door slowly and stood by it.

Behind the closet door was only silence.

They unlocked the door, even more slowly, and let Margot out.


Elizabeth Grant is an assistant professor in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech.


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