Still thinking of Sam, the “Reverend Sam.” In the course of our conversation, he said something like, “you saw us beyond the label ‘student’ as individual human beings” This has gotten me thinking over the last few days. We let so many labels reduce or even block human contact: average, mediocre, poor. When we do that, we strip away someone’s humanity; and, when we strip away humanity, there is a tendency to stop thinking about a student as a person with a life and feelings.
What is this? Are they standing in line? Well, yesterday morning, I bumped into another past student, whom I’ll call Sam, at the DIY store. When I told Susie, she giggled, “Another experience, huh?” She wasn’t kidding. Do you know what Sam and talked about, mostly Sam? Love! These are bits and pieces of our conversation as I scribbled them down later in the car.
“No, I didn’t. You just gave it to yourself. What’s the topic going to be?”
Well, I bumped into another past student in my favorite DIY store. It seems to be happening every day. Then, again, after having taught at the University for over 46 years, it seems at times that the entire town had gone through class with me. Anyway, this past student, whom I’ll call James, and I had a brief conversation. ”You always kept cool and were calmly positive no matter what anyone did or said, or whatever happened. It was something to watch. You calmed things down and let a peace come over the class at the beginning of class by having us close our eyes and silently listen to music for a minute or two. You know why you made a difference? It wasn’t just because you were different; it was because you made that difference into something peaceful and caring, and that always caught our eyes and kept our attention. The class was always busy, but it was a peaceful busy. Sometimes I could swear that peacefulness was a core teaching strategy of yours.”
Well, I’m still in a introspective mood that I find myself getting into during the reflective times of Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur. In this instance, a few days ago I was talking with a colleague here at my university who was lamenting that “students are getting in my way” of his potential promotion and tenuring because of the increasingly imposing research and publication requirement that he says currently are being put into place.
Days of Awe, of Fear and Trembling, of the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), are upon we of the Jewish faith. As I sat in synagogue Thursday, listening to the supplications of the soulful prayer, “Avenu Malkenu,” asking “hear our voice.” I asked myself, “who should really hear my voice?” As I got lost in that question, I thought of the words of that past student I had met on my walk while waiting for the train to pass and I thought of a couple of e-colleagues with whom I was talking. And, two stories popped into my mind. I had read them long ago in the Midrash. I didn’t understand them until I had my epiphany in the early 1990s and they’ve been among my guiding tales. The first story says that during creation, God had decided to instill His divinity into human beings. The angels were outraged. How can something so pure, so precious, and so powerful be entrusted to an imperfect as human beings? If they had the Divine image, they reasoned, they will think like God thinks, and feel what God feels; they will create as God creates, and they will grasp eternity and live forever, as God lives forever. “We cannot let this happen!” they exclaimed. So they conspired, and the stole the Divine Image, and they decided to hide it., to hide it somewhere humankind would never find it. But where. ”Let us put it at the top of the highest mountain!” one angel suggested. “No,” responded a second angel. They will one day climb the mountain and find it.” ”Well, then, let us put it at the bottom of the sea!” another offered. “No, a fourth angel countered, ” they will dive to those depths one day and will find it.” ”I know,” a fifth angel said. ”We’ll put in the most inhospitable of deserts.” ”No,” rejected the angels, “they will bring fruit to the barrenness, dwell there, and find it.” Suggestion after suggestion was offer, but each was rejected because of man’s creativity, imagination, and ability would . Then, the cleverest of the angels stepped forward. “No, not at the top of the mountains, or at the bottom of the seas, or in the dry deserts, or hot jungles, or cold arctic. I know of a place they will never go to look for it. Let us place it in each of them, within their hearts, and within their souls. They’ll never think to search there; they’ll find it there; and so, they’ll never hear that sacred voice. And so, teaches the Midrash, the angels hid the precious Divine Image within the heart and soul of humankind where so often for most people it lies hidden to this day.
It’s was about 3:45 a.m. yesterday. Couldn’t sleep. Mind racing. Adrenaline flooding. I haven’t felt this way since a did a webinar for an LSU education class last Spring. Focusing. Getting in the groove. Putting on my game face. Going deep. I was preparing myself to go to the local Lowndes High School for an early morning 75 minute round table on teaching with my friend Amy Carter and 17 students who are interested in becoming teachers. I was racking my brain on how to “grab” them almost as soon as they sat down. Then, I thought of my own acronyms, HI (Hospitality Intelligence), LED (Love Every Day) and KISSED (Keep It Small and Significant Every Day). I came up with this: The only way to teach is to accept unconditionally each minute as an unrepeatable miracle of opportunities and possibilities; the only way to teach is to accept each student unconditionally as an unrepeatable miracle of opportunities and possibilities.
So, there I was Thursday morning. Out a bit late. Standing patiently at a railroad crossing, waiting, my walk interrupted by a long, long, slow freight train. Waiting, red lights flashing, waiting, warning bells ringing, waiting for that interminable train to pass, waiting to continue my walk. I notice a gorgeous luxury car idling in line next to me.
As part of this discussion I had recently mentioned, I explained to a bunch of complaining professors that teaching has a gleaming, but masking, veneer to it. To make something seem simple is very complex; to make teaching a giving of yourself takes a lot of self-possession; to make teaching imaginative and creative and invite others to be imaginative and creative takes a lot of contemplation; to make teaching a matter of relinquishing control requires a lot of self-control; to make teaching a matter of asking challenging questions–rather than answering them–is a challenge; to make teaching look easy is very difficult; to make teaching look and feel effortless takes a lot effort; to teach excitedly takes a lot of self-control; to teach with spontaneity takes a lot of preparation and deliberation; to make teaching an awakening of each student’s unique potential demands an intense alertness and awareness; to teach with random acts of kindness takes a lot of planning;and, to teach with fun and inviting others to have fun requires a lot of seriousness.
Teaching is a way of finding yourself in the service of others. Teaching is being an emotional match-maker, of putting your heart into what you’re doing while having a good pulse on the moods and emotions of each student. Teaching is using your sense to have a strong and accurate sense of each student’s emotional state, and to match your fervor to each of them. Teaching is a combination of intelligence with kindness, generosity, and service to others. Teaching is a combination of seriousness with joyfulness, unabashed sincerity, quiet eccentricity, energetic serendipity, and excited discovery. Yeah, your have to have a reflected upon and articulated talk if you want to avoid an aimless walk.
Hot, hot, hot! I went out before the sun came up and it was still 82 degrees with a heat factor of 89! That heat factor was high because it was also wet, wet, wet! It was so humid I was swimming more than walking my 5 1/2 miles, and I discovered why they call this week “Shark Week.” Last week a bear strolled across by route two hours before I hit the streets. This morning I was convinced I’d meet a Great White jaw to jaw.