What Is a Great Teacher?

Dr. Shrewsbury

Why is it that social gatherings where a teacher is present inevitably lead to horror stories about kid-killer teachers or absurd tales about incompetent ones? Though many of us have teachers who change our lives, those are rarely the narratives we hear in our social dialogue.

Perhaps it’s because the consummate teachers consistently do great things without fanfare every day. They engage us, they lure us in, they make us love their subject through their own passion. But if asked to name one thing that teacher did, most of us have to think hard before we can point to a single moment that would do justice to the skill of a master teacher.

Dr. James B. Shrewsbury became my adviser the second semester of my freshman year.  I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but I changed subjects twice before I landed in his English 102 class, the second semester of freshman composition.  He was a short, wiry man with white hair, piercing blue eyes, and a Santa-style white beard. When he was thinking hard or listening carefully, he chewed his upper lip, almost as if he were tasting his thoughts before he voiced them.

He began the class by having us read short stories and imitate the sentence styles of great writers, and for the first time I learned that I could sometimes capture beauty in the flow of a sentence.  And when we read Eudora Welty’s “A Visit of Charity,” a story about a young girl who visits a nursing home solely to get points as a Campfire Girl, I wrote a paper analyzing every literary device in the story to show how the young girl is visiting the home for all the wrong reasons.  But I entirely missed the wry humor in the story.

As the teaching assistant handed back the papers, Dr. Shrewsbury turned on the overhead and projected an essay onto the screen.  I recognized the paper, my name removed but the tight curl of the cursive distinctively my handwriting.  Dr. Shrewsbury walked us through the paper, pointing again and again to its strengths.  As he got to the end, he pointed to his closing comment—A very good first paper!  I breathed a sigh of relief…until he continued.

“But let’s look at this one word the writer used.  The writer has pointed out that the little girl isn’t really performing an act of charity, and that’s right.  But do you think this is the right word?”

Pointing to a phrase near the bottom of the first page, Dr. Shrewsbury touched his finger to the words the debauchery of Marian’s motives.  He smiled when it was clear that no one in the room, least of all the writer, knew what the word meant, and then explained that the word did indeed mean corrupt, the word the writer seemed to intend, but that it had the connotation of a dirty old man.

Chewing his upper lip, he stroked his beard and allowed himself the hint of a smile as the class laughed.  “There you have it,” he said.  “Never use a thesaurus to try to make yourself sound more intelligent.  Use it to remind yourself of words you already know.  Or take the time to learn the nuances of the word.”

Miserable, I couldn’t meet his eyes as I left the classroom.  Though he had been gentle, I had rarely received criticism on my work in high school.  It would be years before I could laughingly tell that story to my own students to prevent them, in advance, from suffering similar humiliation.

But at the end of the semester, Dr. Shrewsbury invited me to be his student assistant for his freshman composition classes.  He assured me that I was a “born teacher,” and he made me believe in myself.  After that, I signed up for every course he taught, garnering far more credits in English than were required for certification.

But how did he do that?  I don’t really remember.  The story I do remember could have been one of silent chagrin in the hands of a lesser teacher.  But Dr. Shrewsbury taught me by both word and example to find something to praise before pointing out weaknesses.  And while no teacher is ever perfect for every child, this is Dr. Shrewsbury’s legacy.

So tell me about a teacher who deserves your gratitude.  Or better yet, tell the teacher.

What Is Friendship?

Jefferson

Illustration by Charis Tsevis
Weincek, Henry. “The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson.” Smithsonian Magazine. October 2012.
 
“I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend,” Thomas Jefferson is said to have pronounced. This quotation has been widely circulated online this election season where some of us try never to reveal our opinions while others of us try futilely to change the minds of our friends who disagree with us.
 
Neither of these extremes seems to work very well. I really want a world where we can talk about our religion and politics and philosophy and learn from one another–a world where we find a third way–a middle place where we honor what’s best in the opposition and put it to work in a world much in need of compromise and collaboration. I like to think that I try to do that most of the time. But my daughter is quick to disabuse me of that notion and to remind me that while I listen to what people say, I still try to convince them that I’m right.
 
So how do we hold on to our best principles and yet hear that the opposition also has some best principles? What’s the difference between learning from one another and letting go of what we believe is right?
 
This isn’t a new question in a country that is founded on democracy–a philosophy that is often hard to live by as it’s played out in the real world. As Henry Weincek’s fascinating article in Smithsonian Magazine points out, Thomas Jefferson–the man we hold up as the standard bearer for freedom and democracy–somewhere along the way gave up his principles. In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he denounced slavery as “a cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberties.” But South Carolina and Georgia refused to sign such a document, so it was revised. And as we know now, by 1790 Jefferson had given up his efforts entirely and not only owned slaves but tolerated brutality against them.
 
As Weincek points out in this article, “It is curious that we accept Jefferson as the moral standard of the founders’ era, not Washington. Perhaps it is because the Father of his Country left a somewhat troubling legacy: His emancipation of his slaves stands as not a tribute but a rebuke to his era, and to the prevaricators and profiteers of the future, and declares that if you claim to have principles, you must live by them.”
 
Had Jefferson lived by his principles instead of giving them up, how different might our nation have been? Would we be living a very different legacy of race in this country? Or would we even have continued to be the “United” States of America?
 
And so it is that we allow ourselves to expect more of our leaders than we are sometimes capable of ourselves. We want to keep our friends. We can’t figure out how to hear each other, so we keep silent, speak so loudly that our friends walk away and ignore us until the battle of the political season is over, or give up on what we truly believe.
 
We want our leaders to have principles and live by them. We want our leaders to compromise and collaborate. How can they possibly do both?
 
One thing is certain, no matter who wins the election today: our President has a monumental task before him. Find a way to hold on to your principles, find a way to hear what’s best in your opponents’ principles, find a third way that is better than either way alone.
 
And so, Mr. President, whoever you are at the end of this day, my friend, I pray that you’ll find a way to do better what we’ve been trying so valiantly to do for over 200 years.

What Is a Saint?

With his usual penchant for humor, my husband reminded me on the way home from church that he is named for a saint, Matthew, and that I—well—am not. I didn’t need his reminder that I’m not a saint, but since I tend to be terminally serious, I do need him to remind me to laugh and enjoy this beautiful life I’ve been given.

Today is All Saints Sunday. Our church explains the service in this way:

All Saints celebrates the baptized people of God, living and dead, who make up the body of Christ. Today, many congregations will remember the faithful who have died during the past year. Our worship abounds with references to the saints and our continual relationship with them. Today and this week, we reflect on the lives of people – both the living and the dead – who have moved and supported others by their lives of faith.

I went into the service thinking of my friend Jane Ann, who died in September, leaving behind a 15-year-old daughter, a 90-year-old father, and scores of friends who miss her every day. Jane Ann would not have thought of herself as a saint, nor would she want her daughter or her loved ones to remember her as perfect. But she was, more than almost anyone I know, perfectly and gloriously human, and as her fourth grade teacher wrote on her Facebook page, her legacy is that she always, always reached out to help others. But she never forgot the healing power of a great big belly laugh.

Most of us don’t think of ourselves as saints, but my pastor reminded me this morning that even those we do consider the saints of the church weren’t perfect. But they were people who, like Jane Ann, never lost the optimism that their lives could make a difference in the world. I loved the way my pastor closed the service.  I’m paraphrasing here because I can’t remember her exact words:

On this post-hurricane, pre-election, All Saints, communion Sunday, we need to remember that ours is a God of justice, freedom, and forgiveness….a God who is enough for us all—enough for you, enough for me.

I needed this reminder, too. I beat myself up sometimes for spending more time thinking about helping people than actually helping people. The magnitude of the need in our world sometimes overwhelms me. I’m reminded of a character in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, who wrote about the sorrows of others and put the papers into the cracks between the rocks in the wall that lined her property. After a time, she became so overwhelmed with the agony of others that she went to the river and lay down, a rock on her chest, and drowned herself in others’ sorrows.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, we all know how easy it is to be swept away in the raging currents. But this morning at church we were asked, if we could, to fill up a five-gallon bucket with cleaning supplies and tools to send to the victims of the hurricane.

We are little good to ourselves or others if we take on too much of the pain and anguish of a world where the needs are so great. We do need time to lay our burdens down and gaze in wonder at the blue sky and the gentle roll of the mountains in the distance.

But I wonder what would happen if every single person who was able would fill up just one bucket and carry a little bit of the burden. What a difference that might make in our world!

What Do Disasters Tell Me?

What do disasters tell us?  I woke up wondering about that this morning as I sat in my comfortable home where the electricity flickered but never stayed off for more than a couple of minutes.  Then I watched news video of the fire in Queens and the devastation all around me and gave thanks that most of us have made it through this latest disaster alive.

 
And then I read the news reports and the editorials where both liberal and conservative journalists began the blame game while the two presidential candidates tried to look like the leaders they both so desperately want to be.
 
And I realized I was asking the wrong question.  I started to wrestle with the gnawing realization that’s been trying to creep into my brain for weeks now as I’ve been thinking over the elections of my lifetime, where I’ve occasionally voted against party lines and have never felt the excitement that some Boomers older than I felt when they voted for the Kennedys.
 
When George W. Bush took office, I refused for months to address him asPresident Bush.  Like millions of Americans, I didn’t think he’d been elected.  And after the Supreme Court sided with him, I was indignant.  I wanted him to fail.
 
Then came 9/11.  And while there would later be plenty of blame to go around, for the most part, the nation came together, and our devastating loss brought out the best in us.  Though I still didn’t agree with his decisions, I finally began to pray for him and to speak the phrase President Bush, but I also prayed for a successor who would care for the poor and bring out the best in us.
 
Eight years later I watched as much of the nation felt the same about President Obama as I had felt about his predecessor.  From the day he took office, people questioned the legitimacy of his presidency, too, and shortly into his first term, Mitch McConnell, then minority leader of the Senate, said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president….I don’t want the president to fail; I want him to change.”
 
So I woke up this morning and finally acknowledged that I seldom pray for wisdom for the president I don’t support, except in times of crisis.  I suspect I’m not the only one who prays instead for God to deliver us and send us a leader who will bring out the best in us four years down the road.
 
As I listen to the pundits and the speeches and the spin Sandy has left in her wake, I’ve finally admitted to myself this morning my fear that we’re getting exactly what we’ve prayed for–a leader who can do little except try to survive the opposition well enough to get a second term.  Because as long as we’re just lining up on opposite sides and praying for the other person to lose, we’re going to get exactly that answer to our prayers.  And it won’t matter which man wins next week.
 
And so I realize, yet again, why Jesus commanded us to love and pray for our enemies–and, of course, he didn’t just mean that we should pray for their defeat.  As he said with a wisdom that has caused his words to ring true 2000 years after he spoke, it’s easy to pray for someone you love.  Anyone can do that.  But to pray for the one you want to lose…not so much.
 
This won’t be easy for me, but now that I’ve had this insight into myself, I’m going to try to pray for wisdom for our leaders–by name–even for those I detest.
 
So what does this latest disaster have to say to you?

Who Deserves This Rite?

Matt Estelene in Hawaii

Serena loved to drive, and her father bought her a green Toyota Celica the year it made its entrance into the American market, an incredible luxury in a coal mining town where most families owned only one car and where my family owned none. I was 21, and I wouldn’t get my license until the following summer when I was forced to learn to drive because I got a teaching job in a town an hour away. My younger brothers would take me to the dirt track on the outskirts of town, a small circle in a field where almost every 16-year-old in town learned the basics of driving, and I would get my license and have two accidents in the West Virginia mountains before I’d had a license for six months.

But Serena got behind the wheel of that sporty green Celica at every opportunity, so she quickly agreed to drive me six hours to Alexandria, Virginia to see my boyfriend, whom I hadn’t seen all summer. She had a friend in the DC suburbs, so she cheerfully agreed to drop me at Adam’s house and then pick me up at the end of the weekend. Just after we crossed the border into Virginia, we heard the sound of a siren and saw flashing red lights behind us. Serena pulled over and opened the window to see a burly policeman, red-faced and incensed.

“Young woman, you must be in a real hurry to get somewhere!”

Serena did her best to appear contrite as the policeman told her she had been going 80 mph in a 50 mph zone. He told her that the fine was $150, an enormous amount of money for a college student in the 1970s, and he ordered us to drive into town and pay the fine immediately unless she wanted to spend the night in jail. She complied, as I frantically opened our purses to see how much money we had between us. After we paid the fine, we had $13 left over. But we continued the trip to see the people we loved.

Though we’ve sometimes lost touch for years, our friendship is true and lasting.  I broke up with that boyfriend a year after that trip. I married and divorced and married again before I found the love of my life. Serena, a devout Christian who reads the Bible every day, is still with Marianne, the friend she went to see that weekend, after nearly 40 years.

And then there’s Dave, my cousin. He married and had children before he was able to admit to himself that he was gay. He divorced and later found a partner with whom he shares his life. Dave, too, is a devout Christian. He posts inspirational quotations on his Facebook page that encourage all of us who are privileged to be his friends. He loves to garden and grows flowers and vegetables that he shares with everyone who lives in his neighborhood. But his choice to acknowledge who he really is has come at a cost.  Of his three siblings, only one will speak to him or be a part of his life.

And in 2003 when I lay on an operating table for a surgery that would take nine hours to excise the cancer from my body, the youth pastor of my church would come to the hospital, pray with my family, and sit with my daughter and my husband until he was sure they were okay. A year later, when my daughter had tired of being stronger and more mature than any 17-year-old should have to be, this pastor was the one who talked to her when she crashed and finally allowed herself to question what kind of God would let her mom have cancer.

In one of the few denominations that allows a debate about ordination of gays and lesbians, this man of incredible compassion and passionate eloquence was unable for years to get a call to be a senior pastor because of his sexual orientation. Even in our church, a liberal congregation that shared sacred space with a Jewish congregation, this pastor never brought his partner to church events out of respect to those in the congregation who might be offended by his choice of partners.  And yet I don’t know of a single heterosexual minister who has ever been expected to do the same for a spouse of whom the congregation might not approve.

These three people have enriched my life. And though I read the Bible every day, I cannot understand why people obsess over six verses that condemn their sexual orientation in chapters that also forbid behaviors that heterosexual couples engage in every day without similar condemnation. How is it possible that these six verses—on a topic that is never mentioned in any of the four Gospels—can outweigh story after story of Jesus’ compassion and love?

So, yes, last weekend I stood in line for an hour and fifteen minutes to vote in Maryland. And of the page after page of choices I had to make, on none of them was I more sure I was in the right than when I cast my vote to allow these three people to have the same rights I have to marry the love of my life.

NOTE: The names have been changed to protect the privacy of those whose stories I’ve told.

Why Do We Believe What We Believe?

This week I received an email from a former colleague who moved out of the country because of her husband’s job. She is missed in our office for her friendliness and her generosity in sharing her chocolate desserts. I can resist the run-of-the-mill donuts and left-over Halloween candy, but this woman’s hazelnut torte was a taste of heaven.

I worked with her for more than a year, and we took a yoga class together—my first venture into yoga. She encouraged me to take the class when I told her that my oncologist had been saying for years that yoga would be good for both my physical health and my ability to deal with stress. Because my colleague always seemed so centered, I took the class and learned from watching her and talking with her about how yoga helped her face life.

She cheered me on when I was accepted into a workshop with the editor ofNarrative Magazine, and she read the first chapters of my memoir and told me to be sure to stay in touch and let her know how my writing was going. So when I emailed her the link to my web site, I was surprised when she responded that she had passed on the link to some of her friends. Why? Because she revealed to me for the first time that she is an atheist—something I know only because she told me.

Her response really made me think. Would I have shared her web site had our positions been reversed? How many Christians do you know who would pass on a link to a site that explores the questions of atheists? And why didn’t I know that she was an atheist? She knew about my faith from my writing, but I had never asked and perhaps she had never felt comfortable sharing her own views.

I also have a family member who is an atheist. He’s a single father—a good father—of two young children. And one of my closest friends has struggled her whole life to decide whether she agrees with her parents, who taught her that no thinking person would ever believe there is a God. She is a teacher who has spent her entire career making a difference in the lives of troubled children other teachers have given up on.

These people have taught me that it takes a great deal of courage to admit to the world that one doesn’t believe in God. No matter how sterling the character of an atheist, most people fear them, disparage them, or try to convert them.

Faith, by its very nature, is a belief not based on concrete proof. And for most of us, faith is a response to what our parents taught us. We accept the beliefs of our parents because we see it in the content of their character and the example they set. We reject the faith of our fathers when we can’t reconcile what they say with the way they live. We live without much thought to faith because our parents didn’t consider it important.

So why should we feel threatened or indignant, why should we think less of a person of character because that person has rejected our belief system? We shouldn’t. I believe in God because there are too many things that have happened in my life that I just can’t chalk up to coincidence, because I have felt a Presence with me in both the joy and the muck, because I’ve seen the face of God in the people who’ve loved me and cared for me. This isn’t concrete proof, but it works for me. I chose Christianity as the lens through which I can best see God first because my parents believed in God—though one of the vengeful sort—but mostly because some of the most significant people in my life have shown me the face of God through their lives.

And while I believe in God in spite of being a victim of child abuse and facing a battle with cancer, I admit that I sometimes look at worse things that others have endured and hope I never have my faith tested in such a way. All of us have doubts about our faith, and I’m guessing that atheists do, too.

One thing is certain, though. In every way that counts, except for our views about the Eternal, my friends who are atheists are no different than I. They are people of character. And in a world where a lack of belief in God isn’t socially acceptable, they are, perhaps most of all, people of courage.

So come now, tell me stories of how your life has been enriched by someone whose faith is only in this life.