The picture above was taken during my brief stint in academia. What is academia? Academia is the world of professors and research and writing books and articles. Others may disagree, but no one can discount my first-hand knowledge and experience of academia in the humanities. So what follows is my opinion, and you can take it or leave it:
What are the humanities non-academic people may ask? Answer: they are the study of literature, writing, English, foreign languages… things like this. In the humanities we study what is called the “human condition.” By using the phrase the “human condition” we in the humanities mean the joys but also the pains that all humans face. Suffering is the human condition. So is hope. And in the humanities we study this and language. Sometimes to the point of losing our own humanity.
I took on the persona of reader and scholar before entering the humanities as a college student. This happened when I was 15, after I read Richard Wright’s book Black Boy in the sophomore English class (a class that I failed and went to summer school for. I hated writing, and read through classes, to the dismay of my teacher). Everyone should read Black Boy. Wright had a much more harrowing childhood than I had. I still remember a passage where he talks about throwing up in his mouth and being glad to taste food again. He was that hungry. I latched onto Wright’s message that books could be a means of escape and that studying words and humanity through books and dictionaries would nourish my life. This is still the case. I revere Richard Wright. He is probably my favorite author.
But studying this in a professional setting as a graduate student almost killed me. As a graduate student, I felt better than – superior to – the people I was researching. In other words I became better than authors whose foibles and affairs I studied as if I had no foibles or could never have an affair. I learned to analyze the people they wrote into their novels, their characters, through the lens of judgment, psychoanalysis and critique. Basically, if you don’t know what that means, I became a scientist of life. And I forgot that I, too, was a person.
I have tried to unlearn what I learned as a literature student and magnify my learnings as a woman who studied and then taught 5 languages.
“Great job, Erin!” said a friend. “Facebook is horrible for our mental health.”
Little did I know HOW greatly my world view would shift.
You see, with Facebook I had judged a person’s whole being based on the articles they posted or their stance on a certain political or social problem. And then I judged whether they were worthy of my attention in the future based on if I agreed with what I saw.
Facebook locks us into patterns of interacting with ourselves, our thoughts, and the people and ideas in our culture(s). It does this in a way that makes change, transformation, inspiration, and social compromise, highly unlikely…. and this is terrible for children who are constantly transforming and learning how to imagine themselves and their futures. It holds them back.
It’s back to pen and paper and letter writing for me!
It was in watching the beauty of conversation in sign language that I realized that language is first and foremost a vehicle for story. It was a Sunday afternoon and the sun was setting in Roseville, California, when I walked into a packed and yet silent Starbucks. It was eerie to hear the rustle of clothing with no voices until I realized I had walked into a sign language meeting. The whole cafe was filled with a flurry of expressions and soundless circling and cupping of hands and motioning of fingers pointed and relaxed with intention and precision. I experienced a moment outside of myself right then and there as I entered a parallel universe of storytelling. It was unlike any other language experience I had ever had. It was magic: an intimately familiar and yet an undeniably foreign experience of myself and others as a human storytellers.
The best teachers are our stories.
Not only are we storytellers, we are interpreters of story.
Most of the time the stories that we hear are stories of tragedy before tragedy is overcome and hardship turned into perseverance and the recovering of dignity. Often, are the stories that are so bad that they cannot be hidden. I help my clients recover their dignity and strengthen their character through education even if the educational process in the United States has wounded them. It is a gift to share some of what I have learned on this blog.
There are different types of leadership in every community and leading as an everyday community member is an increasing imperative for our society. This post is dedicated to my Grandma Cornelia, who was an amazing storyteller, educator, and community member.
We need leaders who can model authenticity, vulnerability and stamina; we need people like my Grandma Cornelia. Not only is it possible to be a powerful leader without being in an official leadership position, leadership from below allows for the freedom and grace to influence people on a daily basis in ways that shape the interpersonal structure of a community or a country rather than merely dictate to it. Put simply, leaders from below have more wriggle room.
What I am talking about is mentorship, a mentorship that emerges when people mentor one another as equals. One might say that this isn’t mentorship then, by definition. But I disagree. Every individual has strengths that a fellow human being can learn from. This everyday leadership, this is what best serves our elderly as well as our children. As individuals we are all stewards of our humanity and of humanity at large. The cohesion of groups and organizations and nations comes from our ability to support one another rather than compete with one another, and it is essential in all times. And so I renew a call to all to be leaders, even in the midst of political disagreement. Our children deserve the beloved community.
I stumbled across the following metaphor for teaching as gardening as I read and it can serve as a signpost for those working with students in crisis or with special needs:
“In agriculture the equation of invested input against gross yield is all: it does not matter if individual plants fail to thrive or die so long as the cost of saving them is greater than the cost of losing them…. This does not apply to the careful gardener whose labor is not costed, but a labor of love. She wants each of her plants to thrive, and she can treat each one individually. Indeed she can grow a hundred different plants in her garden and differentiate her treatment of each, pruning her roses, but not her sweet peas. Gardening rather than agriculture is the analogy for education.” [Rudduck and Hopkins 1985, 26; cited in Living the Questions: A Guide for Teacher Researchers 2012].
Have you ever had a teacher like that? I have had three. Or at least three who were that to me. Different teachers fill this role for different students. These people inspire me as I get ready for new season. They have been my teachers of teaching, which is what all good teachers are, for they lead us by example.