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The Teacher

The Teacher
2 July 2004

“Perhaps down in his heart, Okonkwo was not a cruel man.”
         —Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

“Teaching,” she writes with a red pen, “is-” She stops. The teacher is sitting in her storeroom during a break between classes, eating an oatmeal cookie. She struggles to recapture the grandeur of the thoughts that had been spinning in her mind a moment ago. It was something about survival, about language, her learners John and Onesmus, about the grand scheme of things and her role in it all. It was something about what it means to really be a teacher, and how she is thankful to have a couple of learners that enable her to be the type of teacher she always wanted to be. But it was somehow more than that and it somehow all vanished as soon as the ink hit the paper.

“Teaching,” she tries again, “is essential to life.” No, too vague, too obvious. “…is essential to my life, because it is the only thing I really believe in.” How can she put into words this idea about language and life and meaning? John-the biblical one-was on to something when he wrote, “In the beginning was the word.” Words and language were the beginning of us. Language enables us to transmit ideas from our own head into someone else’s head, a magic akin to teleporting. Language allows us to teach about things that are not present and not tangible. And the beauty of teaching is that it is a non-zero sum game, meaning that when someone gives an idea to someone else, they don’t actually give up anything, nobody loses. It’s not like money.

To the teacher, this endless transferring of ideas is the only pure, noble thing. To the teacher, the most beautiful thing to see is a learner immersed in a book, discussing an idea, or struggling to understand a new concept. To the teacher, intelligence is the highest virtue upon which all else depends.

She looks down from these lofty ideas, to the red ink scrawls on her paper, and humbles herself. She knows she owes her high regard for teaching to a few exceptional teachers she has had and a few exceptional learners she has now. All the grandeur fully disintegrates when she emerges from her storeroom and looks at the tenth graders’ blank faces inhabiting her classroom. The eyes stare back, devoid of inquisitiveness or interest, the mouths mumble incoherently or laugh raucously, and the hands are busy shoving chairs and books around. To these mediocre learners, who are only interested in acquiring enough information to pass their exams, she is only a mediocre teacher.

A real teacher, she thinks, is the one who can break through the complacent stares and ignite some fire within. But how can she create the desire to really learn? “You can lead learners to books, but you can’t make them read, let alone understand or appreciate what they read.” She chuckles sardonically at her pessimism. It is an old friend, insulating her from her frustration at the difference between her optimistic thoughts, and her confrontations with the other reality that surrounds her.

The only way she is able to maintain her ideals about her role as a teacher is by settling for the little things-expanding someone’s adjectives beyond “good” and “bad”, teaching the learners an idea or two, helping her class to understand what symbolism is, and getting them to state their main idea in the first paragraph instead of the third. But what she always longs for is the teaching that transcends the content on the English syllabus.

Out of the montage of faces that waft in and out of her room each day, two emerge-sharper than the rest, more interested, more alert, more inquisitive. J. and O. are the ones who justify her existence; all is not in vain. They want to know things and admire wisdom. They appreciate the texts that encourage a re-thinking of conventional ideas. They embrace the challenge of debate, the struggle of learning, the fulfillment of triumphing. They understand the power of language, that each vocabulary word is another way to express a thought, that each reading selection opens doors to another aspect of life, a potential deeper meaning to something previously overlooked. They are the ones who encourage her to make lessons more interesting and more thoughtful. It is for them she teaches.

J. and O. are the very type of learners the teacher imagined inspiring when she was a lowly English major trying to decide which “cause” to dedicate her life to. She wanted to encourage people to think critically, to love knowledge, to strive to be well informed in order to achieve intellectual freedom. It is in doing this that she feels she is partaking in the primordial act of ensuring the survival of one’s progeny. She thinks, “This is what it’s all about. This is what I am supposed to be doing.”

She thinks, words can be both liberating and limiting. They help to transmit intangible ideas across the Atlantic, but they also confine the vastness of thoughts into finite words composed of minuscule characters. How can she put all these thoughts into words? How can she convey her ultimate optimism, her obstinate belief in the power of education, without letting the pessimistic reality creep in?

She tries again, “Teaching…” She pauses. “Teaching is real.”

Love, Sera

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