from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

There is no appropriate title for this 

As I write this, I sit at a desk in a darkened dormitory room at the College of William & Mary, the only illumination from the screen on the computer upon which I write, and the green l-e-d on the speaker that is attached, playing late Piano Sonatas by Beethoven. I begin this not quite sure what I intend to say, nor if anyone other than me will ever read this words. I will make that decision when I have finished.

I find it necessary to attempt to record where I find myself at this moment - this is a spiritual question. It is also a moral question. And the impetus of my writing this is events and experiences of the past few days, some of which have been visible widely, some of which have not.

In many ways I would rather not make the effort to write this, but if I do not I will be abdicating a responsibility I believe is incumbent upon me - to at least be clear in my own mind.

I began writing electronically several years ago on educational list servs and bulletin boards. In the Fall of 2003 I began posting at the old Dean blog. I heard about dailykos shortly after Thanksgiving of that year, joining as member 4334 and posting my first diary in January of 2004. If I post what I now write, this will be the 490th diary I will have posted. Often I have written about education, at other times I have written about books or articles that I have read. Some of what I have written flew by without much notice, other pieces provoked much larger responses.

During the period from May 23, 2005 until May 23, 2006, as I lived through my 60th year, I began to become far more reflective about my life, both looking back and as I continued to go forward. Perhaps as a result, I found the nature of my writing changing.

As a teacher, my most important tool is myself. It is not a particular pedagogical technique, nor is it the specific content knowledge I may have developed. It is not even the knowledge and understanding I seek to develop about my students to inform my instruction. As a teacher I am most effective when I am genuine, when I am honest, when I am vulnerable to my students. Someone who has not experienced by class over several session may not fully grasp what I mean. I share why I think things matter, and try to see how students react. I do not wear a ‘teacher face” if I can avoid it. I try to explain why I am doing things, or asking things of my students. I will sometimes share my experiences and am willing to hear theirs as well.

I try very hard to help my students learn how to disagree without being disagreeable. There is a distinction between dissecting a weak idea or explaining on substantive grounds why you disagree with the person presenting that idea and attack the person who offers the idea with which you disagree.

I am not troubled that others and I can on some issues not come to agreement. I accept that neither are my arguments so cogent nor my argumentation so persuasive that I can expect to change the minds of others. And as I have reflected on my past life I have found that the intellectual rigor of an argument is often not what enlightens someone else.

What seems to make the greatest difference is if somehow we find a way to connect on the basis of our shared humanity. Clearly that is something I have learned from my time as a classroom teacher, which now stretches back over the past 11 academic years.

I am a very shy person. I am also fairly sensitive, although I often do not make that sensitivity as evident as it should be, and I acknowledge that I can be so intense as to seem oblivious to the sensitivity and sensibilities of others.

I find myself wrestling with two conflicting attitudes. I very much want to help people be able to understand one another, to bridge gaps. This part of me may make me come across as a nanny -- perhaps chastising people for the kind of language which shuts off the possibility of finding common ground or at least mutual understanding. And yet there is also a part of me that wants me to speak directly when I see wrong, to challenge.

My vision and understanding are quite incomplete, very flawed in many ways. Thus I acknowledge the arrogance in my attempting either of the roles I have just described.

The only way I have found that I can realistically hope to do both -- for I would be incomplete were I to attempt only one - is to do it through the template of my own experience, acknowledging that what I have lived or learned is but a small fraction of what has actually occurred in my presence, and that is an infinitesimal part of the totality of human experience.

In the past few days I have had the experience of trying to explain without intending that explanation to serve in any way as a justification for things I abhor. Some understood what I was attempting to do, and even as they criticized parts, they responded in the spirit in which I offered the words I posted or spoke in a seminar or in private conversations. In other cases - for whatever reasons - the response was not within the frame in which I thought I had expressed myself. And in at least a few cases the response I received back - whether directly or in a separate expression - was of the hurt I was creating by what I said or wrote.

I have wrestled with thoughts and feelings, meditated, sat in silence and even stillness (they are not the same). A part of me simply wants to withdraw. I do not wish to cause pain or anger, to exacerbate situations that are already grievous in the injury they do to individuals and to our common humanity. I have discussed some of this with my closest companion and most trustworthy confidant, Leaves on the Current. I have gone back and reread postings, and I have sat and remembered conversations and body language.

I have known for most of my life that I was an oddity. I do not really “belong” anyplace. I am not a good fit for most situations, be they social or political, religious or secular, public or private. While I have people who care deeply for me and many about whom I care deeply, I largely have acquaintances, and not friends. I am a very difficult person, which is why it is such a tribute to the largeness of heart of Leaves on the Current that we have stayed together for going on 32 years, and that her love towards me is irrevocable. That gives me a point of contact with common humanity without which I almost certainly would have chosen either suicide or madness decades ago.

When I write or speak from my center, from my own weakness and vulnerability, I cannot demand of others that they respond similarly. I can at best offer it as a means of showing what attempting to find our common humanity may demand of us, or rather, what I know it demands of me. Part of that process involves things seemingly of lesser weight - movies or books we enjoy or even songs we cannot stand, and why. it is like the small trust-building steps in negotiations between two nations or companies with a history of hostility to one another. Little by little we expose ourselves and when that is accepted, as we receive something similar in kind, the level of trust increases to the point where perhaps we may well be impossible.

But this is too theoretical. Give me a choice between being loved and feared and I would take love every time. Present me with a choice between being accepted and doing what in my heart of hearts I believe to be correct, and I will to the best of my limited abilities do what I think is right.

I have in recent days written and posted a piece about no longer willing to be silent. And yet why speak if people will not listen? Perhaps each of us has had an experience of saying what we thought was clear as well as being important only to have our words returned with silence, blank or quizzical stares, or simply ignored. And all of our speech cannot be challenging people - even if we were that correct (and I know I am neither that correct nor that prophetic in the Hebraic sense of serving as a moral witness) that cannot be our only communication with others or they will cease to listen and for all their putative rightness our words will be in vain.

In writing these words I am speaking largely to myself, but having reached the point of realizing that I will share these words publicly, I recognize that I have chosen to share my own inner wrestlings in the hope that there will be one person who reads them for whom they will have value, even if I never encounter that person or the value they derive is not what I would intend.

I stop periodically as I write and do nothing but give the Beethoven my full attention. It is now the final movement of Opus 111, which by itself can both wring me out and elevate me, and as a culmination of a series of riches beginning with Opus 103 and going through all five final piano sonatas is almost too much to bear in a single sitting, as it would be were I do to nothing but give the music my full and undivided attention for both CDs worth. Perhaps how I listen to this music is emblematic of how I should approach other things - there are times for absolute undivided focus, and others to enjoy what I can. That sounds sloppy, not clear, but I know no other way of phrasing it differently.

I am drawn to withdrawing from participation in electronic discussions, because what to me is best of what I offer is that which is drawn from myself, and right now I am feeling drained, empty, as if I have nothing else of value to offer. I cannot in my own mind rationalize away the pain I may cause others on the grounds of all the positive reactions I have been able to engender. That is not dissimilar from rationalizing some deaths as a means of saving others. But what of the lives that were lost? I have read and pondered this kind of question often, and seen it presented far more forcefully in discussions in which I have participated in the past few days.

I am not an absolute pacifist. There are circumstances in which I would be willing to use deadly force - to protect the school children entrusted to my care, for example - but that would not be something I could thereby rationalize away. I would have, however legally or even morally justifiably, have taken another human life. Spiritually I would also have killed a part of myself, no matter how “justifiable” the action. I would not, in terms that matter to me, be answering that of God in the other person, not unless my answer was to kill that of God, because I cannot pretend it is not there, no matter how hateful or dangerous that person might be towards me or towards the school children I would protect.

I have seen this expressed clearly in the writings of a man who began as a Russian Émigré painter in Paris, went to Mount Athos in Greece for many years, then ended his life as the leader of a monastery he established in England. Archimandrite Sophrony lived in a cave during World War II, it serving as his living and praying quarters as he confronted himself and God as he understood it. He had contact with other monks, and had at best a vague and general idea of the cataclysmic events of those days. He writes that when he heard about the war he prayed that the less evil side might win. Note the phrasing - it acknowledges that the very act of war, no matter how necessary it might at times be, is in itself evil. We are usually far too casual when we discuss choosing the lesser of two evils. And yet so many of the choices which confront us may on some smaller scale present us with a similar conundrum. Sophrony acknowledged that a choice might still be necessary, and prayed for the least evil he could.

What I wrestle with is not whether my choosing to write as I have engenders more harm than good. I am reasonably at peace that by and large, and for the vast majority of the pieces I do write, that the results of my writing them are far more positive than any “collateral” damage that may occur.

And yet that does not set my mind at ease. Because I am still causing harm - I am still doing “collateral damage.”

I began this not knowing where or how it would end. I did not know, until partially through, that I would make it available to the scrutiny of others. I knew that I had to at least try to have a conversation with myself. I came to realize as I was writing this that to share it with others will be seen by some as self-indulgent or self-aggrandizement on my part, by others as jejune or inappropriate or as soliciting affirmation or even as pitiful. It may engender all of those responses. I cannot control that.

And while I am interested in any response or criticism others may choose to offer, I do not expect that I will wish to dialog about what I have written. I have chosen to share some of my internal processes in the hopes that it may engender some level of understanding.

I do not wish to cause harm. I also know there will be times when I feel obligated to speak out. I will continue to do so. But I have always had a bit of a monastic streak in me. And monastic listens far more than he speaks. I have spoken far too much, far too often, and far too many topics in recent months. And because I write from myself, I have been draining myself. I can no longer do that.

What I most love about the late Beethoven sonatas is the slow movements of the last 3 sonatas, all of which I have taught myself to play. There are fewer notes, they are written from a place of depth, almost beyond the ability to express cogently. They are simultaneously simply and complex, lucid, and mysterious. No matter how many times I hear or play them, I cannot exhaust their possibilities.

And yet no single Beethoven movement, nor even the totality of Beethoven or of all the music I have learned and love, has the depth or the value of an individual human being, no matter how evil the behaviors, words, or actions. I have often said that my only real experience of the divine has been indirectly - in the natural world, in interacting with pets, in great art of any kind, and in making and sustaining the connection of common humanity. Of these four - the natural world, animals, art, and humans - my words can only connect with the last, and must serve for that purpose only.

My students are surprised to find out how easily I cry. I no longer wish to keep that hidden, from them or from others. My common humanity consists in my vulnerability to the hurt others might be able to do me, because otherwise I am not open, surrendered, and hence am not able to accept love.

And if I know that about myself, and if it is part of my COMMON humanity, then it is also true of each person I encounter in any fashion.

I began not knowing how this would end. I do now.

I apologize for any hurt I may have caused, and weep because I have been an instrument to some of harm. I will do harm again, sometimes without thought, sometimes unavoidably. And I will weep for those occasions as well. But I will also, albeit less frequently, continue to speak and to write if there are occasions which justify my doing so. Failure to act is to be complicit in evil. Even if I struggle to find the course which is less evil, at least then I am seeking to reach out across our shared vulnerability, To me that is the only way that peace of any kind is possible.

I will still speak truth to power if I feel I must. I will do so in the hope that my words and actions may lead to greater understanding and truer peace.

I wish your all that understanding and peace. I ask your forgiveness, but understand if you do not feel you can give it. And I surrender my anger and hurt, and commit that if you feel you need my forgiveness you already have it.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.
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