There is a story in Jewish folklore of a traveler who on a wintry day was sitting in the woods by his campfire when a stranger passed by. When the stranger told the traveler he was cold and hungry, without hesitation, the traveler beckoned the man over to enjoy the warmth of his fire and to share some food. As the traveler opened his knapsack, the stranger saw a bag of precious gems. As they ate, the stranger said he was penniless and asked if he could have one of the stones so he could continue his journey. Again, without hesitation, the man gave one to him. Overjoyed with his new-found wealth, afraid the traveler would change his mind, the stranger jumped up and left, not believing his good fortune. But, incredibly, the next morning, as the traveler was breaking camp, the stranger returned, and gave the jewel back to the man. “Please, sir,” he said, “I beg you to share with me something more precious than this jewel. Give me instead what enabled you to unhesitatingly welcome me to your fire, share your food, and give this gem to me so joyously in the first place.”
The story came to me yesterday for a second in the Student Union. I was talking to a colleague from the College of Education when a student came over. It was “4″ from a Fall semester class. His real first name was Zach, but last semester there were four Zachs in the class. He was the fourth on the roll. So, henceforth, from the first day of class, he was rechristened and reborn as “4.” Anyway, he came over, asked me how I was doing in retirement, and then shook my hand and merely said, “Thanks for everything. I really understand now. I owe you. Got to go to class to take a test.” Then, another student, Lashonda, came over and gave me a hug. ”’4′ told me you were here and I had to come over and give you a ‘thank you’ hug.”
As I walked back from that coffee clutch, I thought of “4″ and Lashonda and the Jewish tradition of the malach. Malach is usually translated as ‘angel,’ but really it means a “messenger” or “agent” who brings a powerful message of consolation, faith, hope, and love. We’ve each had a malach or two in our lives who was a nourishing oasis when we wandered in our desolate desert, who brought hope when we felt we were drowning in hopelessness, who guided us when we were lost, who believed in us when us didn’t, who lifted us up when we were down, who calmed us when us were tense, who infused us with confidence when we needed it most, who made us feel worthy, who made us feel that things were going to be okay.
I’ve had a few malachim in my lifetime. Birdsal Viault. a history professor at Adelphi, was one in my college days. My latest malach was my Susie. Grumpy and angry day after grumpy and angry day after grumpy and angry day of last semester as my unexpected and reluctant retirement approached, she was there, always understanding, always believing in me, always calming the anger, always challenging me, always kicking me in my butt, always soothing the hurt, always consoling me, always lifting me up again and again and again, always assuring me that I will find my way. She may not wear pristine white robes, or sport a halo crown, or float among the clouds, or strum a harp, or have protruding wings on her back; but, don’t tell me she isn’t an angel. She is a malach, as real and true as any divine messenger or agent. Doggone, after 47 years, I still can’t believe the luck I had to go very reluctantly on that blind date with her at Chapel Hill.
Anyway, when you practice HI, you’re a malach; you’re hospitable, and you get up and practice hospitality; you possess and give the gift of touching another human being by giving kindness, generosity and love; you offer an anti-thingification, anti-data-ism, anti-everything-can-be-quantified message. It says, “Welcome. I believe in you. I will not abandon you. I will give you everything I’ve got.” HI is a reminder that we are not here merely to get a check, that it’s not enough to focus selfishly only on getting tenure at anyone’s expense, to spend all our time on getting that grant and publishing that article or book, on inflating our ego as we give our attention to growing our renown. If we don’t believe our errand is to make the lives of others richer with a spirit of faith, hope, and love, we grossly make our own lives so much poorer.
Someone once said or wrote, I’ve forgotten who, “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” And so can we. We can be practice HI; we can be a malach for others. It just takes a desire. And, it takes so little to welcome people, to make them happy, to make them feel wanted, to notice them, to offer a sense of value, to put them at ease. As Leo Buscaglia said, it takes just a slight readjustment of the delicate machinery of the spirit: just a sincere empathetic smile, a listening ear, a caring shoulder, a gentle supporting touch, a soft encouraging word.
But, whether you do things in a great or small way, the desire cannot be merely going-through-the motions perfunctory. If it is, your efforts will be mere cellophane that students can see through. No, your perspective makes all the difference in the world. Your sincerity even more so. Weak and insincere desire breeds weak results, just as a match gives off far less heat than a blazing fire. If a teacher does not believe every student can learn, he or she can find the evidence that some students aren’t learning, and the world seems all right. Distrust breeds distrust; no extra effort needs to be taken, for it would be a waste. After all, there is no hope for hopelessness. And, hopelessness easily overtakes and puts down an upbeat attitude. It creates an anesthetized classroom. But, if the teacher believes all students can learn, and some students aren’t learning, then there is a problem to be solved and a challenge to be taken up, and something to be done about it. There is hope in hopefulness. Faith inspires faith; respect is reciprocated with respect. Students, such as “4″ and Lashonda, give back what is given them. Someone said, quite rightly, kindness to others is not simply important to those welcomed, but improves the lives of those who offer it. Welcoming embodies values of generosity, sharing, caring. You can’t just sit there and watch them. You’ve got to help them. Though it is pretty simple, it is demanding.
Once we accept a student on our campus, hospitality becomes her or his birthright. HI, then, makes the air “musty.” No, I’m not talking about the stale odor of mold or mildew; I’m talking about the sweet fragrance of morality and ethics. Accept a student on your campus and you have assumed an obligation; you shouldn’t, you can’t, turn your back on any of them. To the contrary, you must welcome each one of them; must renew strength; must restore hope; must rekindle love; must led them to look at themselves to see how noble and sacred and valuable them each are, and then must push them to their limits to achieve even when the resist them every step of the way. They may fight you every step of the way; they may laugh at you; they may be mad at you; they may resent you; they may even hate you. But because you’ve welcomed them, their lives will never be the same, and many will thank you in the months and years to come; many won’t.
You must have the strength and courage, by drawing on HI, EI, and SI; you must act out of real concern for each student; you must stand in his or her way, confront her or him, and help each of them help herself or himself to become a person they each are capable of becoming. If you truly welcome, have faith in, believe in, have hope for, and love each student, you must–lift, push, drag, and prod, sending them on as stronger and better persons, whether they know it or not. Practice HI, be a malach, put a “musty-ness” in the air, bring each of them messages of hope, good news: edification that they are capable, confidence when they feel all is hopeless and even desperate, belief that they are noble and sacred; and, that they are worth both your and their effort.