Nov 122013

A number of years ago, I was sitting with some colleagues in a nearly empty restaurant for an early dinner, and in another corner sat a family. I recognized Peter first, then his older brother, Evan, and his younger sister, Jessie. I had taught all three of them some twelve years earlier. The waitress came over to our table and asked which one of us was a teacher.

“All of us,” I replied.

“Which one of you taught the children of that family?” I owned up. “What did you teach them?” the waitress wanted to know.

“Why don’t you ask them?”

She came back a short time later with our order, and I asked what their response had been. “They said you taught them life.” It still makes me smile.

Nov 122013

In my third year of teaching I had a student teacher (I have conveniently forgotten her name) who spent a whole semester with me. Along about December she asked, “Do you ever teach them anything?”

I was stunned by her question and quickly swallowed my surprise and asked her what she meant.

“Get up in front of them and tell them…”

My heart sank. She had missed the whole point of my teaching. “No,” I replied, “I guess I never teach them anything.”

“But just look at all they are learning…” I silently screamed.

Her limited and rigid experience only recognized a model of education where the teacher tells and the student passively listens. I was so saddened that I was unable to even begin to explain what I was doing. I thought it should be obvious….

Nov 122013

I watched Sam as he prepared eggs for breakfast. He planned to scramble them, so he poked a small hole at the tip of the shell by tapping it with the point of a sharp knife, much as I would do were I trying to preserve the shell. He shook out the contents. I wanted to demonstrate how “we” crack eggs in America, so I took a knife to crack the shell in the center. Just as the blade came down, I suddenly realized two things simultaneously. The first was that these eggs, unlike our store-bought ones, had not been washed, and I was therefore introducing a host of bacteria into the egg matter. The other realization was that what the Ugandans call local eggs, collected from truly free-range chickens, might be more than just fertile, since there was no way of knowing when the egg had been laid. Who was I to assume I knew a better way to crack an egg?

Nov 122013

My earliest years were spent in wartime China, moving, constantly moving, and sometimes fleeing with only what we could carry. I can still hear the clatter of hooves on the cobblestones of our courtyard, the mounted soldiers shouting, guns going off, grenades being thrown, the sound of shots everywhere. My first word in Chinese was “Sha!” (Chinese for kill) mimicking the Kuomintang soldiers running by the wall of our compound. My mother was alarmed, unable to project the lasting effects or protect her young children from witnessing daily scenes of violence.

We took off one day, like any other day in our rickshaw, my older brother Tracy and me: he in his little visor hat with padded earflaps, and me, in my quilted jacket and pants, dark blue with a faint whitish flower pattern, to go to school. My teacher, Miss Shu, greeted me at the door. It was a sunny day, though crisp and cold like most Nanking winters. We sang a greeting and counted each child. From playing with our neighbor Jung Chan, I had become quite the Chinese chatterbox. “Let the brush do the painting,” said Miss Shu, as she watched my frustration with trying to make my picture look just so.

I was in the middle of letting my brush do whatever it wanted when my father was suddenly standing there. He felt taller than his lean six-foot-three-inch frame. “Come,” he said, “we need to go.”

“No,” I cried, “I am not finished painting; I don’t want to go.”

He scooped me up and carried me out to the open jeep where my brother was already sitting. As he got behind the wheel, a plane flew overhead. I heard a loud explosion just beyond my school. Stones and dust scattered. My father drove fast and my body froze, not knowing if I should duck as another plane that was dropping bombs flew overhead. My whole body was rigid with fear, though it was such a familiar feeling that it felt like I was wrapped in a self-created rigid shell, impenetrable, but one that didn’t allow much freedom of movement. More bombs fell, but farther away, and my father raced on. We were suddenly at the gate of our compound. Our cook whisked me inside, scooping me up and carrying me into the house.