The Teacher or At What Cost Humility


I have been finishing Jack Kornfield’s book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.  And crying.  Perhaps because in all the other reading, I found such a focus on Buddhism, on meditation, on one single path, and while it’s all been interesting and invigorating (I come alive when I’m learning something new that really captures me, intellect, heart and soul), it’s also been a little bit frustrating.  Because I’m not new to spirituality or contemplation or solitude.  Or mysticism.  Or the examination of my own inner life.

Jack Kornfield has now encompassed most of the exploration I’ve done.  He talks about Christ, about King Arthur and the Holy Grail, about the hero’s journey, about battling the poisons of our life, only to find out that they are our greatest teachers.  How the wise heart knows such paradoxes, how the anger and confusion of the struggle open into compassion for all things (okay, except therapists…in my case).  I never expected to find my own archetypes in a book about Buddhism.  I mean, I thought Buddhists didn’t use archetypes.

Or maybe I cry because at the we-know-we’re-all-crazy-including-me week I did in Arizona, I had to examine who my father was in his life and in mine, and I had to let go of the idea that he loved me enough to be responsible for my strengths.  Which leaves me with the task of taking credit for the good in my life.  In my spiritual practice, the one before Buddhism, I might attribute that to some spiritual force, some greater light, that moved through my life, or that I was lucky, blessed, gifted.  But in the way I’m understanding this now, the good and flawed person I have become, that I was becoming in childhood, in adolescence, in my wild early twenties, is my own creation as well.

Or primarily.

Sometimes stating the obvious can be incredibly difficult.  And I think what reveals itself is that I not only have to take responsibility for my mistakes (something that I know how to do, since I examine my life a lot), I also have to take responsibility for my goodness, my truest contributions.

And so I come to teaching.  I’m reading Jack Kornfield’s book, that speaks eloquently to the pitfalls of leadership for spiritual teachers.  And I think, “I’m just an acting teacher.”  But I think that with a sense of worry.

In Japan, where my academic teaching career began, I taught the 18 year old students whose test scores had not been high enough to get them into a Japanese university, not even one without significant prestige.  This meant, and they knew this meant, that their futures were sealed.  In the very hierarchical corporate culture in Japan, they would come in at the same level as their peers with degrees from Tokyo University, but no matter their performance, they would never rise as high.  The ceiling was set.

I taught English as a Second Language in Semmon Gakko, the rough equivalent of an American community college.  I was just an ESL teacher.  But my students came to me with a sense of discouragement, with a feeling of less than, with worries about their futures, with a desire to escape a trap.  I was informed of this in my first weeks, and I felt then, and still feel now, that where I could open a door, I should.

All teachers have the capacity to change lives so irrevocably that their responsibility is immense.  The word in Japanese is sensei, and it carries heft, it is a position of extreme privilege in that country.  My students called me that:  “Sensei, sensei!  Come and look, sensei.”  A colleague said when they did that it was like the parting of the waters.

I was 26 years old when I taught in Japan.  I know I opened doors.  I worked very hard, and I connected with my students, I made time for them, I listened, I challenged them in the classroom to think and care about the world.  And, as would be true in my long career in teaching, I made mistakes.  The worst was with a young man who had a crush on me.  My supervisor (an idiot) was egging him on to pursue me romantically, and I felt two things–one, I was closeted and involved with a woman and two, I felt, even at 26, with a 22 year old student, that I shouldn’t date my students.  Not during the time that I taught them, and not after.  I told him no.  I told my supervisor no.  I argued with my student about whether a teacher should date anyone she teaches.  And I said no again.

The young man showed up at the airport as I was leaving Japan to come home for good.  I think he wanted to come with me.  I was saying good-bye to friends, I was angry he was there staking a claim on me I hadn’t given him, I felt stalked, and I was unkind.  I told him to leave me alone and I walked away.  I was shaking, I was so angry, and that felt terrible.

Throughout the time I taught him, I sought to open a door for him.  He didn’t understand that it wasn’t personal for me, that caring about my students couldn’t be personal, couldn’t be selfish, that I couldn’t seek to meet my own relational needs and be in integrity.  He didn’t understand that he didn’t know me.

Also, when he showed me photos of his gun collection, I was a little freaked out.

Students of mine from Japan learned enough English to come and get degrees at good American universities.  I had told them how to do this, I had pointed them toward the right resources.  So they wrote.  They came to my house.  I have told stories about my “To Sir with Love” teaching moments in Japan ever since, but I don’t think I’ve admitted to myself how wonderful it is to change someone’s life.  And how frightening.  Like, what if you get it wrong?  What if you get angry like I did in Narita Airport?  What if you get scared when a student won’t accept no?

I’m just a teacher.

I ran my own business teaching Creative Writing in Portsmouth, NH from 1990 through 2000, when I switched to theatre more or less permanently.  I started out in 1990 teaching classes for women and my specialty was freeing creativity, working through writer’s block.  I taught women from 20-80 years of age, but it is the older women I remember best, because some of them had wanted to write their whole lives, and what emerged, as I gently and sometimes not so gently encouraged them, were their own unique voices.  I taught women to have a voice.  That just seems like such an unbelievable privilege.  I see their faces, in this one class at the University of New Hampshire, looking down at their papers after the completion of a writing exercise.  One woman said, “I didn’t know I thought this.”  I felt…so humbled.  Not really unworthy, but lucky to be in that moment with her.

I also had a man come to my beginning fiction workshop who had a non-terminal version of Lou Gehrig’s disease.  He had already lost so much physical functioning that walking was extremely difficult.  He wrote about his fears of becoming less than human.  I was, then, 32.  When he became too ill to attend classes, he wrote to me and told me that in this part of his life, writing, and my classes, had given him sense of meaning and purpose and satisfaction he hadn’t expected. He thanked me.

Everyone comes in the door with a context.  If you teach, you have to work with that context with sensitivity and integrity.  The man I’m referring to had a lot of pride.  So I tried to only accommodate him where he could bear it.  I opened the door early and let him struggle up the stairs without help.  I wanted to help.  But I was trying to figure out how to keep from impeding on his sense of dignity.  I hoped I chose correctly.  I think I did.

It is just hard to know, sometimes.

For most of my life, I’ve taught other adults, and every year, or every semester, there is one student who wants a personal relationship with me outside of class.  Sometimes it’s other lesbians, sometimes it’s mothers who have lost their daughters, sometimes it’s just a person I really like, someone I might want to be friends with in a different context.  But every time, I doubt–should I?  I usually feel as I did in Japan…that I can’t be a teacher and a friend at the same time.  I can be friendly, but I can’t get close to people, I certainly can’t ask for support (a part of friendship) until they’re out of classes for at least a year.  At least.  Five years is probably more realistic.

Of course, there are exceptions, when it’s easy.  Which just makes everything more confusing.

The worst mistakes I make are in trying to handle this particular boundary.  Because other adults don’t understand.  They think they see me for who I am, that there is no transference, no idealization.  Then I wonder if I am authentic enough in classes, because I know that I’m a ton more messy in my personal life.  But I think it’s absolutely unethical to bring my own unprocessed struggles into class.  The students do that.  The teacher holds the space.  If you’re going to err, err on the side of more boundaries, not less.

I think my students assign to me the responsibility for their awakening or growth, the same way I assigned it to…well, my teachers.  It is very, very difficult to have gratitude to someone and to still know that the gift, the strength, the goodness is in you.  The teacher opens the door.  Yes, a teacher must have knowledge, and sensitivity, and boundaries, and skill.  But the courage, the decision to walk through, belongs to the student.

The truth, for me, is that I can tell when I’m not ready to know my students outside of class because I get really unhappy.  I can’t act in plays or movies with them if it’s too soon without feeling miserable.  I’m teaching them in my head.  I’m aware of the dynamic.  I can also tell when it’s okay, when enough time has passed…because there’s a feeling of ease.

And let’s face it, as an acting teacher, my job is to observe and comment on the creative instrument of artists who use their bodies, voices, spirits, personal histories and emotions in fully living out the stories they tell.  It’s intimate.  There has to be trust.  I am telling people I don’t know that I see tension in their bodies, that I see inhibitions, that I see moments of passion and truth. I do feel humility as I do this, as they ask me to, as they let me.  I feel humility as people open up, and joy, and satisfaction, and gratitude that I know how to do this thing, and am good at it.  And frankly, it feels good when my students love and enjoy me and my teaching.  I even feel good that I’m always asking the questions of how to be in right relationship (very Buddhist) with my students.  That I’m aware they love me for my skills and talents and for the freedom they learn, not because I’m some kind of paragon.  I try to remind myself of that frequently.  Because I’m primarily self-employed, I don’t have someone observing me who can tell me what they think, who can keep me right-sized.  I do seek outside accountability, but the trick is that I don’t have to.  I see, in other teachers who work outside traditional settings, the tendency to make their own rules.  This can create exciting and innovative education.  It can also make classes that are like really bad and dangerous therapy groups.

The problem, for me, always comes when I doubt the response of my own body.  When I act like I don’t know what I know.  Or, when a student says, “I’m an adult, I can handle being friends with my teacher,” and my body feels…sinking in my stomach.  Or I have this uneasiness, an aversion I should listen to, Buddhism or no.  I have never known how to articulate this, and more than once I’ve talked myself, or allowed myself, to be talked out of it when it was actually coming in loud and clear.  Though, to give credit, I’ve also more than once held the line when it made someone angry.

It’s been very confusing.

But right now, reading Kornfield’s book, and having made this mistake more than once, more than twice, sometimes it seeming to be okay, sometimes seeing I caused pain and experienced pain…seeing that I can’t easily be myself with my students, I stay in role…seeing the expectations of the student are so far above what I can reach as a person (but not as a teacher in a classroom), I know, I don’t have to make this mistake.  I can stop questioning myself and just choose.  To not take this particular risk.  To trust my body, always.  To trust I know what I know, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense.

What I loved this morning in reading Jack Kornfield was his acceptance of the inevitability of such mistakes…and their inevitable questions.  Freedom is in knowing we will do our best, we will try, doubt, question, fall down, get up, be determined, make headway, fall down again.  Oh, America.  How we ask each other to be so…image-based.  Successful, accomplished, interesting, pseudo-perfect.  It is so much more valuable to be honest.

What I know…not what I’m reading or thinking, but what I know, is simply this:  humility grows the best teaching.  It grows the best relationships.  It allows mistakes and giftedness to exist in the same room.  It makes me eager to grow, and unafraid to listen.  It loosens my defensiveness and my dislike of criticism.

Humility is the wonder of my own gifts, the grace of getting to use them, without pride, without ego…and, paradoxically, acknowledging my own need for limits, whether I can explain those limits or not.

I used to say that pantheism meant that life was a spiritual practice.

I am sure I will leave this place of humility and forget, periodically, what I so deeply know.  But for this moment, I am grateful to Jack Kornfield, and for recognizing that the work of my life counts, as do the pain, the mistakes, the times of looking at all of it and saying, okay.  I am.  Alive.  In the storm and the eye of the storm.  Imperfectly.

Peace is unconditional.  In whatever storm there is, I can drop into it, because it is always there.

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