“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” ~ James Baldwin.
My father was a minister (parson, preacher) by education and vocation, but became a teacher when we moved to Jamaica. He had two jobs, his charge of three churches, and to be chaplain and parttime Bible Knowledge teacher at the high school. After he died (and I only remember this thanks to a ‘memory’ that popped up on Facebook recently), one of his former students shared with me that one of the things he did was to grade notebooks – checking to make sure notes were entered neatly.
He was my teacher too, yet I don’t recall him grading my notebook! But I do recall that he had the ability to bring the Bible to life, making it a textbook filled with stories, not dry text. He showed that it was a history book, a geography book, a record of births and deaths, war and peace, of poetry and proverbs. He began just about every class with a drawing, a map of Palestine and Judea, with the Dead Sea in the middle.
Ever since I switched careers from working as a nurse to teaching future nurses, the challenge has been: how to you help students learn? For there is a big gulf between teaching and learning. One of our high school principals used to say: ‘If the student has not learned, the teacher has not taught’, but I always say that learning is an active, not a passive verb. If the student does not manipulate the material, draw, write, apply, own the information, no amount of ‘good teaching’ will make up for that.
But there is something about the way content is delivered that helps develop memory. We learn the basics by repetition, recitation and even singing – we have all seen those videos of cute babies singing the alphabet song, or the books of the Bible. I know that the pituitary gland is located in the sella turcica of the sphenoid bone (information I have rarely used in life!) because of the annoying nasal way the teacher said that sentence. We mimicked and repeated it and I still know it! If you are lucky, you will have had a teacher willing to make a fool of themselves to make something memorable (I never talk about beta blockers without singing the phrase ‘olol-olol-olol-olol, olol-olol-olol-lol’ like the Inner Circle song that I hate).
When you have to change your perspective (like from student to teacher), it completely changes the way you do your job. I was thinking recently about the job our politicians are doing, and I wondered how often do they think about how history will judge them? This week, a week when we thought about a man who risked his life to promote the wellbeing of people of African descent in this country, we are watching a Senate filled with people who seem most interested in doing nothing, make no changes, making no progress. How will they be judged? A hundred years from now, how will the History books report their actions and inactions? When you are examined through the long lens of history, how will you smell?
There are giants among us, people who have done the right thing even when it cost them everything. Most of us don’t have to make those choices, we can be mainly focused on our immediate family. The Greek language has many words for the word ‘love’, each with a slightly different meaning. They have a word that signifies erotic love (maybe we call that lust – eros). They have a word that means deep friendship (philia); one that means playful love (ludus); there is even one that means love of self (philautia). But the one that is called for today is agape, love for everyone.
It was from my father that I first learned about these Greek words. Perhaps he was always teaching, long before he got a paycheck for doing it. He even included the lesson about the Greek words for love in a message he delivered to my nephew and his wife at their wedding ceremony. And although I don’t check notebooks, I tell nursing students today to dedicate an exercise book to vocabulary words (label each page with a letter of the alphabet) so that every time they hear a new word they can write it down and ‘look it up’. I am echoing my father who would send me to ‘look it up’ if I asked him the meaning of a word.
We cannot escape our history, but if we are lucky, we can play our role and become part of the long lens of history. But if we are at an inflection point in history, a time when things can change drastically for the better or for the worse, perhaps it is time for us to take the high road and focus on what is best for humanity as a whole. What can we do to demonstrate agape, love for each other, even when politicians try to divide us? Who will be the agents of change who make a difference in this world? I can hear my father quoting ‘on the tiptoe of expectation’ as he taught us in class, his high tenor voice going even higher on the word as if his voice was on tiptoe! Whether it is climate change or social change, it seems we are headed in the wrong direction.
This Friday morning, I hope you can practice agape, despite the temptation not to. I hope you can support those change agents who are working to improve our planet, our society, and our wellbeing. And I hope you take your place in history.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!