It is probably no surprise that at some point in this journey, I discuss teachers. After all, for me the profession is nearly genetic, in my DNA so to speak. My grandparents and parents were educators, and as hard as I tried to stay out of teaching, once I found myself in a school and working with kids, I was hooked. I also am well aware that there is a certain ego-centrism we humans carry—something along the lines of “if everyone knew the special experiences I’ve had, the world would be so much the wiser.” So I apologize. I need to ask your indulgence for this one, because I need to talk about teachers—teachers that I have known, the teacher I wanted to be, and most of all, how the persona of ALS has become one of the most effective teachers I will ever know. In reflecting on my own career as an educator, now over thirty years, I have to admit that some of my most deeply held beliefs have been turned on their collective ear by the education in which I now find myself enrolled. More specifically, the pedagogy employed by my new dis ease mentor is one that is probably the most effective I have ever experienced. I share with you these observations, none truly adequate to the topic, but all heartfelt to be sure. Or, to paraphrase Sean Connary in the 1987 movie The Untouchables, “Here begins the lesson.”
When I was in high school, struggling through more than the average high school student’s dysfunction, I had an English teacher with the remarkable gift of invitation coupled with accountability. She accepted nothing less than my full capability, and she accomplished this by paying attention to the details of life that were crashing down around me at the time. She taught me to use my failures as opportunities. If I turned something in late, she nailed me, if I wrote beneath what she perceived I could do, she made my papers bleed red as only a skilled English Teacher truly knows how to do. And in the process of holding me accountable, she also invited me to become more than I wanted at the time—“Come and see me after school, and we’ll talk about that.” At first I didn’t, I’d blow her off. “Yeah sure, maybe tonight.” But she just wouldn’t take no for an answer. When I didn’t show up after school, she would somehow mysteriously appear at lunch in the hallways where I was hanging out, “Hey, I need to talk with you about that last paper you turned in.” Slowly, she reeled me in, hooking me with intellectual challenge—“I was reading this essay, and I thought of you, why don’t you give it a look and write about it?” She had the persistence of a woman possessed with a mission, and she focused her considerable energy on the children of her community. She was brutal, kind, a friend, a sister, a cunning and brilliant woman who just wouldn’t let me slip into the mediocre quiet and addled confusion that I thought I wanted. She insisted that I be much more.
And of course there were the music teachers with whom I studied. Strongly opinionated, personally flawed, artistically brilliant, extremely varied in their aesthetic judgments and tremendously demanding of everything I might offer, they pushed me into arenas that even now I have difficulty believing. I learned to balance their expectations in ways that forced me to make unified sense out of their extremely disparate demands. My music education was one that left no choice in the construction of a unique, artistic persona, mostly because I had to reconcile my equally brilliant teachers’ vastly differing values. More importantly, I learned to read the artistic and performance requirements of any given situation for what was actually present, accounting for the forces and resources that were available rather than for those I ideally thought should be brought to bear on the musical challenge of the moment. If I was stepping up to sing with an orchestra, I had to learn to reconcile my voice teacher’s expectations with the conductor’s musical interpretation whether either was consistent with my vocal capability or not. And I had to do this knowing full well that both would be offering me their loving feedback at the end of the performance, probably none too gently. What I learned was that each had a perspective, a frame of reference that informed their expectations, and there was no argument about which of them was right and which was wrong. They each were totally correct and justified in what they taught me, expected of me, and pushed me to do. It was just that the two (or sometimes three or four or five) were diametrically at odds with one another. And when I would try to point this out, each would invariably say something like, “This is art. You think it is easy? Figure it out.” Laid into this musical context was the significant teaching that reconciliation toward a vision larger than any one person can hold, is the stuff of life, and if I could just figure out how to do that, there would be a really beautiful moment somewhere in the process that no one truly anticipated.
These were lessons that were profound in shaping me as a teacher, yet early in my career, I misapplied a number of the lessons above. For example, I believed that if I focused solely on success, kids would be successful. I structured my classrooms to avoid failure. I placed success, even if it was just a drop in the ocean, at the top of my teaching priorities, remembering how my own success had spurred me on to greater things. And later on, I sought to teach the power of a compelling vision, believing that in such presentation would be a smoothing over of the differences that come with the naturally disparate points of view present when two or more humans occupy the same space. I remembered how, in my own performance preparation, I could reconcile conflicting demands through my own interpretations. I thought that what I had learned in my artistic training was how to make conflict disappear through a higher plane of performance and aesthetics.
Now, I am enrolled in the most challenging education I have ever known, with the cruelest yet most profound instructor I have ever experienced. Instead of a focus on success, I must deal with inexorable failure. Instead of reconciliation, I must accommodate the destructive elements that now come crashing in–sometimes moment-to-moment—as my body fails. For above all, ALS is about massive failure, and ALS is hegemonic to a fault. The performance demands are significant—I must learn and relearn how to do more with less, to rely on intangibles such as faith and breath when faith is buffeted and breath gets shortened by the most mundane of activities. I must learn to put my hopes in the love and support of family and friends, reversing the beloved role of eternal caretaker and dependable rock. It is a humbling lesson. Most of all, my new teacher has starkly made me see that real living is not possible without acknowledging that each moment, death stares you in the face. Talk about reconciling disparate information!
OK, now don’t get upset, for I want to name a few things that get turned on their ear by the great teacher with whom I am now engaged. Let’s start with success. I wonder if I would not have been a better teacher by focusing on creating a classroom environment where failure was the expectation, but the love and care that went with the failure made reengagement, resilience and persistence non-negotiable. Above all, I now realize that what my former teacher taught me was to be persistent. She was! She just wouldn’t let me slip through the cracks, and she never lied to me about meaningless successes. She pointed out everything I was doing that didn’t live up to standard. By truthfully evaluating my performance, and by not letting me disengage, she showed me how to work through my failures. Now, in a time when dropout rates are estimated to be between 25 and 30% nationally, wouldn’t resilience and perseverance serve our children much better than falsely structured success? Live, and you realize that you have to persevere, to pick yourself up, even when you cannot stand. I wish that I would have allowed more failure, and communicated more love. My new teacher points this out to me every single day. All of us will experience failure, loss, utter despair many times in our lives. It is whether we have the resilience to learn from these experiences, whether we have the strength of character to come back with persistence that really determines our success. So my former teacher was a character builder, and my current teacher insists on strength of character, and I wish I had learned this lesson earlier.
Even more important is the lesson of reconciliation. All human beings come to a given place with their own experiences having shaped the person they are and the beliefs that they carry. It isn’t about finding reconciliation to sweep away the differences and challenges. It is about a life that accommodates the fact that diametrically oppositional forces must occupy the same space. The artistry is in moving past that fact and finding a way to accommodate these differences without letting them kill you. It is, in effect, the ability to take the termites and ants and all the other creatures that you think are undermining the structural soundness of your house of existence, and incorporate them in a way that they become integral to who you are and how you do things. I cannot cure myself of ALS, I cannot go back to my pre-ALS self, but I can accept its presence as real, rebuild myself with that understanding, and move on. Not so much reconciliation, this is actually the accommodation of life that dis ease requires. That is a hard one for me, but it is why I have not allowed myself to “fight” my dis ease. Instead, I have learned to embrace its requirements, to move through its limitations and still be who I am. I admit that the lesson is not completely learned, but this is the struggle of life—to accept it on the terms it gives you, whether you asked for terms or not.
I started this reflection apologizing for indulging a need to discuss teachers and teaching. In so doing, I realize I ought to apologize to all of the great teachers I have known for being such a willful student. I apologize that it took one more teacher for me to actually get the lessons now that they sought to impart so many years ago. But the fact that the lessons are still there is a testament to their genius. To have given such a profound gift is artistry and science and faith and reason to the highest exponent imaginable. I can only name them for what they were—Teachers, and I can only hope that in some paltry way, I finally got it right.
And in so doing, I can quote Sean Connary rather than paraphrase him, “Here endeth the lesson.”