One of the most important lessons a good teacher teaches, beyond the subject matter, is how to live a moment or a year of moments. On the first day of classes, you teach how to meet new people, how to start an endeavor, how to be open to whatever comes. On the last day of classes, you model how to end something, how to say goodbye. You model how to face freaky spring weather in winter and winter weather in the spring. How to face a test, sickness or other challenge. To share insights, listen to the insights of others, think deeply about questions raised, and fears and joys expressed. How to face evil with insight, and violence with calm clarity. And how to celebrate what you value and value what you celebrate.
In this way you model the most important lessons one person can give to another. You create a community. You state with your very life that a loving, caring community is possible and, thusly, create the seeds for a more loving and sustainable future. You think of teaching not as a job, not even an avocation, but just what you are doing now with your life. You think of each moment as an opportunity to learn, to expand your sense of self, to see others in you and you in others. All of us in this world that we share need this sort of gift. This is what I hope to celebrate and wish for all of us this season.
My first teaching assignment was in the Peace Corps, in a small village in the bush in Sierra Leone. One day, my classroom was invaded by a swarm of bees. They settled in my book cabinet. I imagine as I think back on it that they were “killer bees” but I don’t know if that was true or not. To get rid of the bees, I got out insect spray that I had somehow acquired and gathered my students, in a line, outside the classroom door. Each was armed with a bucket of water to throw on the bees, and me, in case they chased me from the room. I put on a raincoat, hat, pants and boots. I entered the classroom, sprayed the cabinet—and the bees flew out in a swarm from the room. A seeming miracle. The students and I celebrated.
The next day, my neighbor, the paramount chief (one of five powerful traditional tribal chiefs in the country) came to see me. The whole village was of the Mende tribe. His chief wife, one of five, was a tall, majestic woman. She seemed to like making a fool of me. She only spoke deep Mende, the language of the bush, not the more modern version I spoke, and not Krio, a hybrid language of English, Portuguese, and Sierra Leonean languages; she certainly did not speak English. Whenever I tried to speak with her in new Mende, she always corrected me in old Mende. Anyway, she was in trouble. She had heard about how I had chased the bees from my classroom. Another swarm had invaded the hut where the chief’s beer and food was stored. The maintenance of food and beer was her responsibility, so she tried to duplicate my miracle and somehow chase out the bees without using the spray or protective clothing. It didn’t work. She had twenty to thirty stings and was possibly in shock. The chief said I had to give him whatever medicines I had to cure her. There was a shaman living near the the village, but no medical doctor within hours. The Peace Corps provided all its volunteers with a large first aid and medicine kit. I gave him skin cream for bites, aspirin—I did what I could, fearing that neither my knowledge nor medicine would be of much help.
Three or four days later, while I was resting on my porch in my hammock, I heard the voices of several people. I lived in the Paramount chief’s rest house which was set back maybe a hundred feet from the road. The group stopped at the path leading to the house and one person, a woman, left the group on her own and was walking toward me. I got up to meet her. It was the chief’s first wife. Obviously, she had recovered quickly. I don’t know if what I gave the Chief cured her, or whether it was her belief in the power of the medications, or what. She walked up to me. Now remember, no one had heard her speak any language but deep Mende in years, maybe forever. Yet when she stopped and looked in my eyes, she thanked me, in English. Good English. I started crying. And laughing. Then came a celebration. After that, she no longer made fun of me. In fact, when I got extremely sick a few months later, she helped me get to a doctor.
The world is a miraculous place, if only we can make it so.
**The Good Men Project is a great site to check out. They also published a blog of mine today, on the relationship of all humans.