Archive for the ‘Malawi project’ category

Teaching Moments

October 30, 2008

“Education is the manifestation of perfection already in man.”—Swami Vivekananda

What do our words and actions teach others? What do we learn by observing the words and actions of others?

You don’t have to be a “teacher” in order to educate someone. You do it by being who you are, indelibly shaped by your experiences and guided by your beliefs.

There are plenty of obvious examples of this. Parents show their children how to tie shoes, make sandwiches, drive cars and balance checkbooks. They sign kids up for piano lessons, dance or martial arts classes, religious instruction, sports clinics or art camp, and tutoring in preparation for college.

But what are you teaching others simply by going through life? When you have a brief conversation with a fellow passenger on a train, or stand in front of someone in the grocery store checkout line, the opportunities for being observed are countless. Whether it’s to notice the book you’re carrying on that train, or the different vegetables you’ve got in your cart, these can spark curiosity and encourage exploration, expansion of another person’s horizons.

We each hold unique knowledge that only we can pass on. Stories, songs, images, ideas—these are the vehicles for learning that humanity has relied upon for millennia. They will change as our society changes, to fit the needs and desires each generation has with regard to how they communicate and understand. (If you need an illustration of this, just consider the difference between sending messages with pigeons and sending them via e-mail, or hearing a village monk play a flute after a three-day pilgrimage as opposed to choosing from among ten thousand songs by pressing a button on your MP3 player.)

Each time we are presented with new information, we are also presented with a choice. Do we wish to further our knowledge and incorporate new material into our reality, or do we want to remain where we are?

To deny anyone this choice by restricting their exposure to education or limiting their access to it is one of the gravest disservices imaginable. For someone to say, for instance, that you can’t learn to read because you’re a girl or because you’re black or because you’re blind and can’t use print books like everyone else or because you can’t pay to attend a fancy school or because no one else in your family has ever done it before or because your parents work in a particular profession or worship in a certain way … These ideas may seem to make perfect sense to those who hold them, but from the outside looking in, they don’t.

Perhaps I’m thinking about this a lot since today, I will take sixteen boxes of Braille books to the post office and send them to a pastor in a very rural part of Malawi, a country in central Africa that is arguably one of the poorest places on earth. I’ve been sending books to this pastor since 2001. Where he lives, there’s no running water, no electricity. There are no services for people with disabilities, including the blind. In many cases, rather than going to school, they are sent out to beg by their families.

Not content with this outcome and knowing that, like every other human being, the blind and disabled have dignity, are respectable, and, most importantly, can learn and want to learn. So, he has gone from village to village and organized true grassroots groups of these people, teaching them to garden, to cook. Women who are blind have learned to cook. The Braille books have been passed from one person to another to another. Now, instead of one person reading them and discarding them, they may get read by twenty people, maybe more. Each person who touches the pages gains knowledge they didn’t have before and sees into a part of the world they never could have imagined before.

Once that’s done, I’ll go back to my “regular” job of teaching piano. It doesn’t matter to me whether you are five or seventy-five. All I need in order to teach you is your desire to learn. It is a great privilege to watch students of all ages, from all kinds of backgrounds, discovering an expressive art form. Teaching, for me, is about passing on the things I think are precious–art, knowledge, belief in the innate power of the human spirit to rise above challenging circumstances–that inspires me to teach. These gifts shouldn’t die with me. I have a responsibility to pass them to others, whether they are in generations younger than me or those who began life before I did.

Even writing is a form of teaching, and I’ve learned more, I think, from the various blogs I’ve visited than I have from any other aspect of the Internet. Perhaps this hasn’t been “pure” knowledge, as in verifiable facts. But the sheer volume of possibilities to catch a glimpse of the world through someone else’s eyes is unparalleled anywhere on earth.

You can only give people the chance to choose. You can’t force them to follow your logic. For every person who chooses to change, there is one who refuses and remains in their current situation. To judge one as “better” than the other is easy, especially if we believe strongly in the advantages of one way over the other.

Today, I’ll be helped by many people. The woman who drives me to the post office has grandchildren of her own. What will I learn from her as we talk, laugh, carry boxes, maybe share a cup of tea? What will I absorb during my piano lessons, and who am I to say the “wisdom” of a 7-year-old is more or less valuable than that of a 12-year-old or an adult? That’s a judgment I refuse to make.

Judgment is, in its own way, a lack of education. If we can’t accept the endless array of humanity around us without a basic level of universal respect regardless of differing viewpoints, then what does that teach others about us? More importantly, what does that teach us about ourselves?