It was black this morning as I went out onto the silent pre-dawn streets and into me. For me, no spiritual, meditative, philosophical, or even cognitive exercise is as powerful as silence, as experiencing the “joy of stillness,” as quiet exploration of your inner self, as just being a sacred, noble, unique “me.” In that hour of silence I feel more grounded. No static. No noise. No distraction. No demands. Only presence. In that darkness emerges immeasurable light that carries me on my vision of dedicated service to each student.
As I returned from my two miles of mobile mediation, the dawn had broken. In the growing light, I walked through my flower garden filled with early blooms. That’s what happens when there is no winter. I thought of how our fantastic ability to create pulls us out of the dark and into a world of vibrant color, and to imagine the future. Every gardener knows this, and of course you do not necessarily need beds, seeds, or bulbs to be a nurturing gardener. We can be gardeners on our campuses and in our classrooms.
Knowing that we each have that intriguing adventure within reach, I started thinking of an exchange I’ve been having with a self-denigrating student. I’ve been encouraging her to seek professional help in finding ways to stop listening to the voices of darkness that she’s allowed to weigh her down and to replace them with believing voices of light that will uplift her. My thoughts turned to a poem I had written a long time ago in dedication to a dear, now departed, friend. I had titled it “You Tell Me; You Don’t Say.” Avoiding the resurgent and voracious mosquitoes that would surely carry me off if I sat by the Koi pond (another sign of our absent winter), I came into the house, got myself a cup of freshly brewed coffee, sat in front of the computer, pulled the poem up, read it several times, and sent it to her. It began and ended with:
You tell me what you know….
You don’t say who you are
You tell me what you do….
You don’t say who you are
You tell me what you have….
You don’t say who you are
How often students define themselves and we define them by assignments, scores, grades, courses, GPAs, sports, sororities and fraternities, selected majors, honors, awards, and recognitions. How often do we define students and ourselves by religion, skin color, ethnic background, political persuasion, social status, nationality, gender, sexual preference, and even being southpaws? How often do we define ourselves by our titles, positions, degrees, grants, publications, and expertise? How often do we define ourselves by whether or not we are tenured? How often do we define ourselves by our award, honors, and recognitions? How often do we define ourselves by our roles as husband or wife, son or daughter, father or mother, boyfriend or girlfriend or just plain friend? How many times do we define ourselves by our cars, houses, clothing, jewelry, charitable acts, investments, income? How many times do we define ourselves by our vocations, advocations, hobbies, or anything we do? Why do we have to supply that information for people to know us? Why do we have to have that information to know ourselves? Maybe “judge” is a better word than “know.”
What if we didn’t have this information or these descriptions or these labels? Would we realize, then, that this information is often an opaque curtain between us and ourselves, not to mention between us and others, between actuality and appearance? Would we reflect more often on who we are when we’re not in these roles, when we’re without our resumes, when we’re without our status, when we’re without our relationships, when we are not doing these things, when the facades are taken down, when the curtain is parted, when the mask is off? Would we be more attentive to who we are when we shed these identities? That is the question the Bard asked when he had Polonius advise Laertes in one breath with the insightful warnings that “the apparel oft proclaims the man,” and “to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” Why, then, can’t we just be true to ourselves and just be a “me,” a sacred, noble, unique human being?
For me, to be a “Louis,” and that rhymes with “phooey,” to be a “just me,” is to have a radical trust in life. No strings attached. No bravado. No status. No conditions. No “what’s in it for me.” I’ve found that students will tend to trust me more if I trust myself because they will see me, warts and all, see my authenticity, and come to know me. And that’s crucial for a viable classroom.
You know what a classroom is? It’s not a history of this or biology of that. It’s a bunch of people, human beings, bumping into other human beings, most of whom are awkward, off balance, inexperienced, and fearful. From reading journals, students would love to seen for who they each are. We can give them that. It’s tough, but it’s the best chance for me and each of them to connect and have a meaningful experience. We have to be gardeners, planting, cultivating, nurturing, growing into, and living three virtues: belief or faith, hope, and love. These virtues are too often hidden in plain view. We can see them if we make way for them through our own loving-kindness. These virtues give to everyone a meaning to be blessed and to bless. They, like gravity, hold you down while soaring to great heights. They’re the most liberating teaching force in the classroom. They’re forces of renewal and resilience. They place you not only at the head of the class,. but in the heart of the class. They let you revel in playfulness, meaningfulness, joyfulness, purposefulness, light-heartedness, fulfillment, achievement, and significance. They endow you with the power of a question mark: to search, to be aware, to be attentive, to see, to listen, to have an otherness. It is up to us to live them each hour in order to keep alive the vision for what lies behind these virtues. These three virtues are verbs; they are our greatest tools to help us fully live our hours. They always have the power to force us to remember and draw us back to what is true and beautiful at those times we forget and drift off.
You might ask, “Why me? Where were all the adults for these students to keep their innate wonder alive?” You might say, “It’s not my job.” I say, “No matter, for we are now here.” We have to weary of our whining about this void. Instead, we have to step up to the proverbial plate and be that person who is there to help each student help her/himself strive to become the person she or he is capable of becoming, who will be in a student’s company to help her or him rediscover the joy and mystery of both her/himself and the world around her or him. Do that and you will help generate miracles in life; do that and in the muddled mess of the classroom somehow and sometime you will spot a glory to celebrate.
I just told that student that there are plenty of obstacles that can stand in her way. She shouldn’t be one of them. Her own thoughts, feelings, attitudes, assumptions and fears can hold her back just as surely as a solid prison wall. And yet, just as she created those self-imposed obstacles, she can bust through them. That is, she is her greatest problem, and she is her best solution. The same is true for us. Instead of fighting against ourselves with weapons of resignation, frustration, negativity, anger, disinterest, distraction, and even fear, we can marshall the amazing power of our thoughts and feeling to more fully enable ourselves. To paraphrase the Sufi, if you put the classroom between you and these three virtues, the classroom becomes an obstructive obstacle; if you use the classroom to live these virtues, the classroom becomes your friend, filled with potentials and possibilities, and you’ll make joyful efforts. Do that, and exclamation marks will replace dour periods. And, then, what you do in the classroom will have a better chance of having more meaning than merely getting a grade on an exam, going far beyond the physical confines of the classroom, and lasting long after the term is over.
One final word, before you sweep this away with a contemptuous wave off, just know that this isn’t just philosophical “clap trap,” or New Age fuzziness, or Zen “touchy-feely.” This is also the hard, neuro-science and cognitive psychology of giving a care.