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Lions Roar : November 2012
disheartening—my botched attempts at explaining verb con- jugations I didn’t fully understand myself; the blinking stares I received when I asked who had done the homework. Robert never returned to class. Did he lose his apartment? Did his new boss change his shift? I never knew. Like so many students before and after him, he just disappeared. By Novem- ber, more than half of the students from that first day had gone AWOL. Even those who did show up seemed to be experiencing doubt. Nearly every week, at least one student closed her eyes or used the table for a pillow. One night, two young women snickered at my inability to write legibly on the whiteboard. I wanted to whip around and shout, “Hey, I could be home right now eating spaghetti and watching Project Runway with my husband. I do not have to be here!” But being unpaid didn’t absolve me of the responsibility to teach well. Although I contemplated unconditional confi- dence—the belief in my fundamental worthiness, regardless of results—I wasn’t feeling it. My students needed to pass the GED, and they needed a teacher who knew what she was doing. How arrogant of me to think that a college degree and a three-week training program qualified me to enter this profession. I was an amateur, and they deserved better. With attendance so uneven, I couldn’t build on the grammar lessons. Even more frustrating, I never witnessed my students’ progress—they didn’t stick around long enough. I was standing by the side of the road, hurling verb forms at them as they raced by—to where, I had no idea. As I headed for the train each Thursday, I thought about quit- ting, fantasizing about all the other things I could be doing— writing a novel, seeing an outdoor concert, sharing a glass of wine with a long-neglected friend. My mind was constantly engaged in a grim calculation: Is this worth it? Meanwhile, my Buddhist training in selflessness was going swimmingly. I adored loving-kindness meditation and the way I felt when I wished happiness for my husband, my friends, the guy who made my sandwich at the deli. I also enjoyed the meaty struggle of sending good thoughts to a neighbor who was seri- ously pissing me off at the time. The teachings inspired me to start making small, spontane- ous sacrifices—quietly taking the heel of the bread so my hus- band could have the better slice, letting an able-bodied stranger grab the last free seat on the subway. In these instances, Sakyong Mipham’s words were true; putting others before myself did bring me peace and harmony. But this was so small. Taking the heel? Seriously? That was the best I could do? On that gray March night, I didn’t force Ramon to read about his favorite pastime, but I did wake him up. “Ramon, would you like to read the next exercise?” I asked in a clipped, high tone. He rubbed his face, apologizing. He had just finished a double shift at the fish market—seventeen hours straight. A few minutes later another student, Leena, hustled in. Sorry for being late and for missing the week before, she said, then explained that her schizophrenic brother had tried to attack her family with kitchen knives and was now in jail. “But it’s okay,” she said, slipping off her coat. “Nobody was hurt.” She set her zebra-print bag on an empty seat and sat down. “So what did I miss? Was there any homework?” How ridiculous I had been. My students had difficult and cha- otic lives—who was I to take offense when they couldn’t get to class or stay awake? What, exactly, was I expecting to hear when I asked them about their pastimes? Stamp collecting? Bee-keep- ing? For most of my students, their only “pastime” was falling into a heap in front of the television after the daily marathon of work, school, and child-rearing. I had been lured into volunteer work by the idea of “getting more than I gave.” Now I saw how wrong-headed that was. I also understood why it wasn’t making me happy: because I expected it to make me happy. I was still on the “me” plan. Gradually, I learned to accept the humble reality of my task— teaching people how to write, one comma at time. I couldn’t control whether the lesson would take, or whether it would help them pass the GED, or even if passing the GED would get them a better job. I could only teach the class as best I could, without expecting a psychic payoff. A few months later, I worked with a man named Luke on that week’s essay topic, “What would you do if you were president of the United States?” Luke was a quiet, serious student, whose gentle energy belied his gangster apparel—square gold earrings in each ear, muscle shirt, sideways trucker hat. A few weeks earlier, he’d read his essay on “the qualities of a friend,” calmly stating that he didn’t know much about the topic because he’d never had a friend. But his ideal friend would be loyal, honest, and have his back. Now Luke explained that if he were president he would improve the job situation for ex-cons. “I applied for a job and the manager asked what I’d been convicted of. When I told him, he said he couldn’t hire me,” he explained. “But if I don’t have anything positive to do, I’m going to end up doing something negative.” As I tried to imagine sweet, friendless Luke in prison, I was— once again—struck by the vastness of the lives before me, which I only caught in fleeting glimpses. In a movie, this might be the part where the ex-con discovers his voice, and with the help of a soulful teacher, begins an exhilarating journey that culminates in rousing congressional testimony. But in reality, in the Time–Life cafeteria, this was the last time I would see Luke. He was accepted into a jobs program that con- flicted with my class. I congratulated him and thanked him for telling me why he was leaving. He said he wanted to keep work- ing on the essay, so I scribbled my email address on a slip of paper and told him I’d love to read it when he was ready. He smiled at the notepaper. “I’m going to email you,” he said. I’m still waiting. ♦ SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2012 30