I went out a bit late this morning. I am allowed. We’re between terms here at the University, and I decided to sleep in today–recuperating from a weekend of heart-stopping basketball. It was a glorious, sunny morning heralding in the transition from the hard winter to a soft spring–made nicer by the fact UNC is in the Final Four after demoting some Kentucky colonels to buck privates and preparing to barbecue some Hogs and make some Bruins into throw rugs while visiting Seattle next week. Anyway, it’s suffice to say that this morning was one of those serene times that reminded me, as I told an e-mail colleague, that each day is a gift and how I spend it is my “thank you” for it.
I have to admit that I was thinking about my last Random Thought, about the overwhelming response to it, and the swamping number of requests for my syllabus and “stuff” exercises. The volume of responses while gratifying caught me off-balance because I thought the Random Thought was so blandly pedagogical. Guess I was wrong. Goes to show. While I was loping away, swatting at the first mosquitos of the season, the joke of the man, the five dollar bill and the lamp post once again popped into my mind. I’ve told a few people, whose requests I have already answered, the joke as a warning that the wad of material I was sending them did not have any automatic curative impact as if it was a divinely blessed piece from Lourdes or Conyers, Georgia. It’s an old and trite joke, but it has a deep meaning for me and my teaching. Do you know it? Well, it goes something like this. Henny Youngman can tell it much better:
One night a man is on his hands and knees under a lamp post obvious looking for something.
“What are you doing? Can I assist you?” a passerby asks.
“I’m looking for a five dollar bill I lost over there in the living room in that dark house,” the searcher replies.
“Well, what are you doing out here?” the passerby asks with a bit of surprise in his voice.
“The light is better over here!”
I told you it was old and I couldn’t tell it properly, but I lied when I said it was trite. It wasn’t until almost five years ago, at the age of 50, after being in the classroom for almost 25 years, that I had discovered that I had been under the lamp post and didn’t even know it. Through the last few years of soul-searching, I have discovered that what I do in the classroom emanates from something that is deep inside the darkness of MY spiritual and emotion innards, not outside there in the light of someone or something else. I can try a new syllabus. I can suck on tootsie pops and play music on my boom box and dress in jeans. I can experiment with bonding and trust exercises. I can explore new teaching strategies. I can even utilize new technologies. But, I am like the paddle tied to the ball by the rubber band. It is me–the paddle–that drives the ball and directs it, and whatever I do, that ball always snaps back to me for more energy and direction. Everything I do is a part of me and therefore an extension of me. And if whatever I do is not me, if I merely go through the motions, if I have not reflected upon and articulated why I do what I do, if I have not bought into what I do and have not assumed ownership for it, if it is not of my essence, the students will sense it. They will hear far louder what I truly am then what I proclaim and how I act. They will see that I am consciously or unwittingly merely going through the motions expected or demanded of me by either others or myself. My eyes, body language, vocal tones will tell them that I am more talk than substance, more chic and fad than commitment.
If I am changing what I do, it is because who I am is changing. If I now make a big deal of each and every student, it is because I now unswervingly believe with every fiber of my being that each and every student is a big deal. If I focus on individual REAL PEOPLE in my classes instead of stereotypical STUDENTS, it is because I now believe that in the classes there only are individual real people, each with a hidden strength and dignity and pride but who don’t realize they are real people because they have seldom be granted the respect of being real people, who don’t know who they are, and don’t understand what they can do. If my students slowly struggle to be real with themselves, others, and me, it is because I now am much more real with myself and with them, and somehow let them know that it’s ok and safe to start struggling to go inside themselves, to start asking questions about themselves and coming up with new answers, to start struggling to be real and to start struggling to become who they want to be and are capable of being. Let me go out on another one of my limbs and say that from my experience that there is a power in being real that is conducive to learning. I do not believe that students will learn as well and as much from a teacher who sits and pontificates behind separating walls of image or authority, with whom they cannot connect, whom they fear, whom they do not like, or whom they do not respect. And, a teacher cannot teach students as well from behind such muting, thick redoubts, with whom the teacher does not connect, about whom the teacher does not care, whom the teacher does not like, or whom the teacher treats with disrespect.
The most exciting evaluation I ever received from a student had nothing at face value to do with the operation of the class, and yet it had everything to do with it. The student wrote, “You are for real! I couldn’t believe my eyes one day when I saw you walking holding hands in the mall with your wife. You were smiling like you always do. Then, you let go and put your hand on the back of her waist and slowly dropped it until you were lovingly caressing her butt! I was flabbergasted that a professor would act that way. She pushed it away. You playfully put it back. She playfully pushed it away. The two of you were teasing each other and giggling and cuddling. You leaned over and pecked at her earlobe. She turned and kiss you on the cheek, and then you two held hands again and went into a store like that. You two looked like a pair of teenage lovebirds. It was fabulous. You’re just like us! And I guess that’s why I felt after that I really started believing that you were a teacher of students and not a distant history professor and I could be honest with you and I guess with myself too.” When I read that, I said to myself out loud, “How about that.” I have a copy of that page taped to the walls in both my office and ersatz study here at home as a reminder.
I would be presumptuous, however, to tell anyone specifically how to teach because each morning I get up and uncomfortably acknowledge as I walk that I am not yet the teacher I want to be, and don’t have a magic elixir to put in my orange juice when I get home so that I will be transformed into that teacher. That is why, among other things, I talk to my shadow self on these treks and share with you our conversations. The thought that there is always so much to do and in so many ways yet to improve does not offer me any peace or ease. But I am never bored. Each day, I have to get down on my hands and knees inside, where it’s sometimes damp and dark and spooky, grope around, and discover all those hidden wonderful things about me. You and I are far more unactualized than we are actualized. Learning and growing don’t stop with the granting of the diploma or the bestowal of the hood or the publication of a book or the acquisition of a reputation. They are never-ending, life-long processes of growth and change, not a destination. I think realizing that I am limitless is a hell of a scary and exciting challenge to continue to find out all of that hitherto wondrous potential about me, develop it, not to be afraid to fall, accepting imperfection, failing, getting up and going on, and continuing to search and discover and change and grow.
I know, but not without pain and anxiety, that I do not, cannot, touch all the students. But, I care enough for each of them never to stop trying. I never know which ones I will touch, if any, how I will touch them, to what depth I can touch them, and when whatever I do will manifest itself. I wrestle with and agonize over the realization that I may be little more than one finger in a leaky dike, that I am going against the current, that I am confronting 12 years of learning habits ingrained by an educational system that generally does not educate once it gets passed about the 7th grade, against personal and social baggage, against a society that sees education more as a provisioning a work force than as a source of viable citizens and growing human beings, and against the neutralizing impact of my more traditional colleagues. But, each morning I get up and remember three things. The first, and maybe the most important, is the serenity prayer. If you don’t know it, learn it, and to paraphrase the biblical injunction, engrain it upon your heart, speak of it on the way and when you rise up and lay down, write it on the doorpost of your house, and on the gates of your cities. It goes like this: grant me peace to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. The last is the hardest and most humbling to acquire and live by. The second thing I keep in front of me is to remember that to touch one person in however a small way is not a small thing. And finally, I realize that the greatest mistake I could make is to do nothing just because I thought that whatever I could do would have small results or no results at all. That keeps me going when I falter, keeps me sane when I get frustrated with either myself or a student, picks me up when I am convinced I blew it, and keeps me sucking Tootsie Pops.
Make it a good day.