Deborah Meier said in her book, The Power of Their Ideas, “Teaching is mostly listening, and learning is mostly telling.”
I love this because as a former teacher I used to have it turned all around. I got better, fortunately, but then I retired. Now I’m an author and what I’ve learned about myself by writing has filled three books.
I speak a lot, telling my story, mostly at recovery meetings. And when I’m not speaking to other people, I’m speaking to a piece of paper—many pieces of paper. It’s my therapy. It’s how I learn about myself.
It’s a constant practice of self-discovery, this discipline of pen to paper. I cross out, revise, change my mind, rephrase things. All this writing and rewriting helps me clarify my thoughts, my understanding of what’s real to me: what’s authentic. It’s how I learn about myself.
How I’m learning.
It’s an ongoing process.
I find that as I keep growing and changing my writing reflects that as well. There’s nothing static about me or about my writing.
And just as the words flow out of my pen onto paper, my recovery continues to flow from my heart to those around me. It’s a real symbiosis, this relationship I have with my pen. It eases the words out of me so that I can share what I’ve learned with others.
The rare epiphany I experience is like a volcanic eruption. I had one recently, and writing and rewriting about that has taught me so much about its meaning. But mostly I’m just going with the flow of life, trying to pay attention with what’s going on with me.
So I continue to do public speaking, which is a tremendous learning experience. And the more I write—the more I speak on paper—the more I learn about who I am and who I’m becoming.
I just have to keep my heart open and listen.
“I want to feel myself part of things, of the great drift and swirl; not cut off, missing things…” ~Joanna Field Reunion
In 2006 my partner, Gene, and I went to my fortieth high school reunion. This was in a town where appearances mattered above all else, where I’d learned growing up that how I felt was secondary to how I looked. And that year, I was looking good.
I hadn’t been in touch with any of the people I might see there. So they didn’t know any of the details of my life. All they would see was a pretty fifty-eight year old with her handsome boyfriend.
I went to say to a few of them, “See? You didn’t destroy me after all. I’m still here.”
My first boyfriend, John, was there with his friend, another kid from the popular clique that had blackballed me in junior high. He was still a handsome man, and I remembered why I was attracted to him back in eighth grade.
It was odd seeing him there, with all those years between us.
To my surprise, he and his friend sat down at the same table with us—right across from us. I didn’t know anything about him, and right there was an opportunity for him to tell me about his life.
But I was disappointed.
His eyes were carefully averted—drawn to other people like magnets all over the room. No “Hi there, Marilea. Look at you! What have you been up to in all these years?” No curiosity about me at all. Not even a polite greeting or nod. I might as well have been invisible. But then again, Gene was sitting next to me, and they might have found that intimidating. He was my convenient shield.
Another friend of John’s sat down on the other side of him, and John craned his neck in that direction, excitedly asking him all about the Patriots’ upcoming season.
Gene and I left the table unceremoniously, moved around a bit, chatting here and there. We could not get out of that building soon enough. I felt like I didn’t belong there, like an outsider, which I was in a way. I wasn’t a “townie” anymore; I had defected four decades earlier.
When I left that town I rarely looked back, disconnecting myself as I frequently did throughout my life. It represented so much pain and angst for me that I needed to get away. For a while I kept up with the few friends I had, but even that grew difficult with my moving around so much.
Though it was fun to see some familiar faces many years later, going to my high school reunion felt awfully superficial to me. I didn’t really know anything about the people there, and they knew even less about me.
Sometimes going to a reunion is like looking at a display case in a museum: you often know nothing about the work that went into it.
Pity the poor fly. Its brain is pretty miniscule and not capable of making decisions that might lead it to its final flight.
Have you ever wondered what they were thinking flying through our open doors and/or windows? Well, they weren’t thinking; remember, they’re just flies. They had just spent a lovely day outside, gobbling up insects, laying eggs on piles of compost, and just frittering away their time, wondering what to do next.
“Oh, there’s an open door,” they venture excitedly, “maybe there’s more food through that door.”
“Nope, not a good choice,” we implore, as we flail around trying to whisk them back outside. But too late for some. They get lost in the curtains, the laundry room, the bathrooms. They do tend to linger around windows as they wistfully wonder how to get back out into the open air. Yet they have no idea how to accomplish that.
“Oh, look at all those ants…” precursors of a thought, their jaws watering at the sight of all the insects through the living room window. My son leaves the doors open sometimes, just so that they can escape the doom that awaits them.
But then more just come in.
Oh, pity those poor flies. They’re not suicidal. That would require some forethought, and they don’t think at all, remember. They just like to eat bugs. And poop. And make more flies. One place to do all that seems just like any other one.
Wrong! Inside most reasonably well-kept houses there are not a lot of bugs. So there they sit, or flit from room to room, vainly scrounging around for some edible bugs, while they slowly lose their energy, utterly bewildered by it all.
Finally, unable to carry on and fly, these lost and confused insects drop down onto the floor where I find them, usually near the windows—those glass barriers that kept them from swooping down and devouring all those ants. One by one I pick them up and take them outside, where they become dinner for other insects.
2nd Place Prizewinner in Susan Wittig Albert’s Life Writing Contest, September, 2020
My first awareness of a global pandemic underway.
The world had suddenly grown quiet.
Shock. Denial. Fear.
More shock and disbelief. How could this be happening to us? More varied reaction to what was happening in our country: increased levels of fear in many places; bravado and disregard of science in others.
Summer was coming. Many people were tired of staying inside. They pushed through their fear and opened their doors.
A policeman in Minneapolis killed George Floyd over a minor offense. The noise exploded onto the streets. Black Lives Matter protests occurred all over the world. The upheaval in our government was still looming ahead. The rising oceans are threatening our habitable land and Bangladesh is drowning.
I grow weary from the news. I close my doors and remain inside. I look within.
An extraordinary time in history is upon us, and the whole world is struggling to survive.
The everyday noises of living—traffic on the highway, baseball stadiums full of shouting fans, plays and concerts in packed halls—have lessened or been put on hold outright. Activities have stopped if they involved close human contact. Fear prevails.
How was it when the world grew quiet? When factories ceased production and the clouds of pollution dissipated? When, as a result of this, the sun felt warmer on my head while I was gardening? When bars and restaurants closed, when the theater company ceased production and returned my tickets? When I was no longer able to sing at the nursing home?
Life as we had known it was on pause, and we needed to learn how to live differently for a while.
We’ve put all of our habits and customs and dependencies under a microscope. Almost overnight we have had to prioritize everything. With a dearth of outside stimulation, I’ve started talking to myself more. And listening to myself. Without the everyday noise of living in our busy and crowded world, I search for and listen to, with intention, a calming inner voice. Hearing it comes to me more easily. It is a compelling instructor, as I reap the rewards of solitude.
The loneliness that often accompanies being separated from friends and family might have unsettled me more years ago. But now, with such ease and delight, I’ve been learning how to be my own best friend. I don’t feel lonely. That is the paradox of solitude. Much of the pressure of living—of being around people and confronting all those mirrors—has scuttled off for the time being. When we are alone, life is simpler. I revel in those moments, briefly, for the windows they open to me.
I’ve always wanted to listen to an inner voice, a positive and centering force that would sustain me as I made my way through life. Ann Morrow Lindbergh wrote about this beautifully in 1955 in Gift from the Sea. As she grappled with her busy life raising several children and coping with the demands of a famous husband, she sought, long before it was fashionable, a sense of peace and independence within herself. Her search resonated with so many other women, and I often reread her short book full of wisdom to gain new insights.
Eliminating the distractions of life is not so easy. Our telephones ring now more than ever. The digital world has supplanted close human contact. And I have found that it hasn’t always been the outside noises that prevented me from listening to my best self. Sometimes there are inner voices competing for attention. Those voices don’t always serve me well, and it takes a certain amount of self-awareness and fortitude to rid myself of them.
Like weeds in my garden.
The rhythms of living, of course, continue to undulate through our worlds, and I wonder how many of us live really solitary lives. I do not. I regularly invite the voices of friends and family into my days, more appreciative than ever as I’ve learned to cope with so much time under quarantine.
These recent months of deprivation have brought into focus much of what my busyness had allowed me to put aside. I’ve attended to correspondence I had been avoiding for too long. This continues to be a silver lining for me in the pandemic cloud. My garden, too, needed tending, and I’ve been grateful that the worst of the social restrictions have occurred in the midst of our spring and summer weather.
Most activities away from my homehave been put on hold:volunteer work that had been gratifying to me; and the physical closeness of friends and family that I had taken for granted.With so much more free time, I’ve found myself looking within more, and listening to myself. Not the kind of self-absorption that crowds out the rest of the world; but rather the sort of curiosity that often leads to clarity and, feeling renewed and refreshed, a welcoming of happy distractions into my world.
Awareness starts at home, in our minds, and listening to our own voices. This is where we begin, to use Ms. Lindbergh’s metaphor, to redefine ourselves on the hub of the wheel. “Woman must come of age by herself—she must find her true center alone,” she has said. And whether or not that is true, it is a most comforting and empowering idea.
We truly can be the authors of our own lives.
For twenty-five dollars my mother bought a beautiful baby grand piano in 1955, and my siblings and I took piano lessons. I don’t remember when my brother and sister stopped their lessons, but I kept at it for quite a few years.
My own three children took lessons on that same piano. But they eventually lost interest, just as I did.
Curiously, though, I managed to keep two songs in my fingers for many years: Edward McDowell’s “Scotch Poem” and Arthur Brown’s “Improvisation and Melody.” What was I holding onto?
Then, out of sheer neglect by not oiling the wood at all, the baby grand quite literally fell apart when I tried to move it to another location.
Maybe that was my Higher Power’s way of telling me to let go of those two songs.
And a lot of other things.
“Hello, Bob. And Bob. And Bob. And Bob. And Bob.” Gene named them all ‘Bob’—easier that way.
Even before quarantine, Gene was a little nutty about this group of eight or nine giant starfish living under seal rock. That’s the rock we paddled past a few years ago with a fat seal sunning itself and sitting right on top. Got a nice picture, too, as we paddled on by.
Gene tries to walk on the beach every day during low tide. Winter or spring. Rain or shine. It’s about a mile to seal rock, and that’s where he found these giant sea stars, clinging to their home at the base of the rock. They can live without water from 8-24 hours while they wait for the tide to come in.
What a life for these starfish. Clinging to their rock. Do they ever venture off of it? Do they ever swim around like sea anemones or jellyfish? Or do they stay on their rock in their isolation, avoiding the company of other sea creatures?
Oh Covid! You’ve turned us into a couple of hermits, me and Gene. We venture out to the store when we have to. And a couple of people even came over recently, six feet apart, no hugs.
“This is surreal, Gene,” I whine after they leave. “I miss hugging people. And I miss a closer connection with my grandchildren. I feel like I’m losing time with them.”
Bob and Bob and Bob and Bob and Bob don’t care about the coronavirus. Or isolation. Or losing time with anyone.
What a simple life they enjoy. It’s only humans that make it complicated.
A crucial part of my teaching journey has been to confront and accept who I am in relation to my students in order to forge the most effective partnership with them. In addition, I have enjoyed sitting back and letting my students educate me. For truly, as Deborah Meier said in her book, The Power of Their Ideas, “Teaching is mostly listening, and learning is mostly telling.”
Much of my adult life has been witness to Hispanic and Ladino culture. My journey began quite randomly, when I was a nineteen-year-old college student, searching for a summer volunteer job. I ended up at San Sebastián Christian Service Center, deep in the rain forest of Puerto Rico. I went there to teach English to some of the poorest, most uneducated “jibaros” in western Puerto Rico. But, as with all the stops on my journey, I came away learning more than I taught.
This experience opened a door for me, for when I was twenty-three, I met a Cuban graduate student at Harvard University, and despite our vast cultural differences, he became my husband. Angel joined the Foreign Service, and for fifteen years we lived in several different third-world countries. But the first two, Nicaragua and Ecuador, were the area from which many of my students migrated.
When I started teaching English as a Second Language in Arlington County thirty years ago, I thought that my background would enable me to bond instantly with my Hispanic students. Was I wrong! Only now, after taking a closer look at what the poor populations have endured in the last generation at the hands of the United States, in El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, Peru, and Bolivia, do I understand why my students didn’t feel any special affinity toward me. “But my son is Nica! He was born in Managua! You, Jeffrey Flint, you are from Managua. Don’t we have a lot in common?” “Not on your life, Miss. You and your husband represented the United States government, which backed Anastasio Somoza, who oppressed my family and all the poor people of Nicaragua for forty years. When I look at you I see only an American who happens to speak Spanish. I’m glad to be in your country now, but I’ll never forget why I and all of my Central American buddies had to come here. So no, Miss, we don’t have anything in common, certainly nothing that would endear me to you, especially. You’re just a nice teacher who happens to speak Spanish.” So much for my “in” with the Hispanics.
I never actually had this conversation with Jeffrey, of course, but I do understand him better now. I was always a little baffled and disappointed with my students’ disinterest in me and my background. Now, in retrospect, I think they’re being polite. There’s much they could say to me, that their parents and grandparents have told them, that I might not want to hear. For all of these students come from poor backgrounds, and after reading Rigoberta Menchu’s story, and excerpts from Harvest of Empire, I understand where they’re coming from. “To comprehend this new Latino wave, we must have a rudimentary sense of what the immigrants left behind. Simply put, the vast majority of Central Americans today live in perpetual misery alongside tiny elites that enjoy unparalleled prosperity. The average cat in our country eats more beef than the average Central American.” “Central America’s victims perished mostly at the hands of their own soldiers…and invariably from weapons `made in the U.S.A.,’ since in each country our government provided massive military aid to the side doing most of the killing.” There you are. Once I understood and accepted the gulf between me and my Hispanic students, how did this affect me in the classroom?
I taught to what they knew as much as possible. I had many educational materials that told their story and from their point of view. Joel Medrano, an El Salvadorian student of mine, walked from his country to the United States with a few companeros and lived to tell the tale. I read Grab Hands and Run in his class, and what classroom activity could have personally validated him more? That book echoes Calixto’s tale in his Odyssey to the North. Felipe, the narrator of Grab Hands and Run and newly arrived in the United States, was getting to know his American hosts. “It seems that although the U.S. government does bad things in El Salvador and supplies the weapons with which we are killed, many North Americans have good hearts.” That, one hopes, is the conclusion many Ladino immigrants arrive at. One day in my classroom community, my advanced students and I might have had a lively discussion about U.S. foreign policy and the “ugly American.” Another time we might have done a role play about Sandinista policy dilemmas. The Network of Educators’ Committees on Central America published a curriculum on Nicaragua called “Inside the Volcano,” which had all kinds of classroom activities that the students had fun with, and more to the point, related to.
Back in my beginning class, I had a group of Bolivian girls who spoke Quechua around me as well as Spanish. It’s not that they didn’t want me to understand what they were saying (though maybe they didn’t!). I think they were just reaffirming their culture and their uniqueness because Quechua, after all, is not widely known in the U.S. It’s almost like a secret language (echoes of Rigoberta?). They always loved it when I read them The Legend of El Dorado by Beatriz Vidal. They could certainly relate to the Indian history surrounding the legend. Speaking of legends, I loved to teach my unit on Central American legends around Halloween: El Cipitio, La Siguanaba, La Chintintora, El Duende. The kids got a kick out of my familiarity with things only their grandparents used to tell them late into the night. Even though I was not one of them, I think they liked it that I brought these stories into their classroom community.
Of the three units we studied, the Hispanic unit was the one I was most familiar with, both from extensive personal experience, and also with respect to the materials I incorporated into the classroom curricula. And yet, I was still very much an outsider, just as I was when I married into a strongly male-dominated culture. It was that cultural trait that doomed my marriage, because I wasn’t willing to be told what to do. I couldn’t shake being an outsider and carrying the burden of white privilege, whether I was teaching Blacks, Ladinos, or Asians. And yet it’s that very separateness that might have given me the objective edge as their teacher and as their friend. Together we read about and discussed aspects of their history, their suffering, and above all their endurance. For it is that very endurance that I celebrated often in my classroom, how I admired them for what they had to overcome and the discrimination they are still overcoming as they assimilate into American culture. I celebrated my students, so that someday they might celebrate themselves.
When I was a teacher thirty years ago, one of my assignments was as a long-term substitute. The teacher left lots of engaging assignments, and I did my best to implement them. The students had a break from their “real” teacher, and I felt little pressure to invest myself in the assignments because I knew I’d be leaving. That attitude, and my subsequent behavior, could have brought on tragic consequences.
Shirley was a pretty, soft-spoken girl in this class. She rarely smiled and I sensed that she was unhappy. But I left her alone. I had twenty-three other students to attend to. It was two weeks before I asked her if she had a problem she wanted to talk about, and she broke down in tears. I was relieved that she was so able to open up. She said that she was treated very badly at home. Shirley lived with a much older sister and her children, and this sister resented her living there. I asked her if there was any physical abuse and she said no; they just made her feel like she wasn’t welcome. Shirley said she was so miserable she wanted to die. I told Shirley I should tell the counselor about this, but she begged me not to say anything because she was afraid it would make things worse. This is where I made a huge error in judgment. Partly because I lacked experience with child abuse and partly because I had promised Shirley I wouldn’t tell, I naively hoped that the problem would correct itself.
But for three days I didn’t sleep well. I had a terrible sense of misgiving, and finally realized that I had to tell Shirley’s counselor what she had told me. There was immediate intervention, and Shirley was placed in a foster home where she eventually finished high school.
The weight of those three days still burdens me sometimes when I think of how my poor judgment could have proved disastrous. The fact that I was a substitute in no way should have diminished my responsibility to my students. My inexperience would have been a poor excuse if anything had happened to Shirley. Needless to say, after that I was very vigilant with my students, and often went to their counselors with my concerns.
But a larger truth I realize now as I’m telling this story is that we teachers are all imperfect, vulnerable human beings who have been given a large and important responsibility to care for other people’s children. How we regard that responsibility is at least as important as what we do in the classroom. That is the lesson we learn. We will make mistakes. If we are good, well-intentioned people who strive to do our best, are open to critical reflection and can learn from those mistakes, then I believe the teaching profession is better off with us than without us. And that’s what making a difference is all about.
This is an excerpt from my second memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation.
“Lining up all my conches and other shells like students in a classroom, I’m mindful of what they are teaching me.
Once I waded into a cave in the sea around Greece and found a large cache of sea urchin tests, or exoskeletons, long since abandoned by their hosts. When my family left Athens in 1990 I packed them as carefully as my mother’s Limoges china, but I’ve loved them more.
The most beautiful shell I have used to sit on the window seat in my mother’s hillside home in Massachusetts. We found it at dead low tide one hot summer day at Duxbury Beach when I was seven. She had held onto that conch for over fifty years, maybe for the same reason I have trouble throwing my shells away: the assurance that something of us is left behind.
From each of my beach excursions, I’ve made sure to bring back a shell or two. And in the fifty years that I’ve been amassing my collection, I’ve run out of space to display them.
Now, my son chides me, I must leave them where they are—and driftwood too—to shore up the beach.”