I believe in teaching, good teaching, real teaching. It’s as close as we get to what I think it must be like for God to extend grace when what we need will arrive no other way than by grace, except that it’s human to human and involves no supernatural powers. It’s an exchange—you give me your emptiness; I give you my fullness until the exchange flows the other way. For thirty years it was my work: high school, college freshmen and sophomores, graduate students in creative writing, but most of all, adult education.
A young woman came to me, barely able to read, not really certain about the four operations with whole numbers, but bearing a high school diploma from Mississippi. She had eleven brothers and sisters. With her father and mother, they were fourteen. They had boarded a bus in Mississippi and got off in Portland, Oregon. None of them actually knew where they were. She did not have the concept North-East-South-West. The map I showed her meant nothing. The family’s father chose her to come to the adult education center because whatever that high school diploma meant to the people who handed it out, to her father it meant she was their best hope. Her goal, as it turned out, was not just a GED for herself, but 14 of them through her.
Her father was right to recognize her as bright and capable. We negotiated until I had agreed to every condition she was required to impose. I was to teach her something every day. She had to know what she had learned so that she could teach it to her father. Nothing I taught her could be “of the devil,” because if when she taught her father he judged it as serving the devil’s purpose, she would not be allowed to teach the rest of the family, nor would she be allowed to return the next day.
I tried to play it safe, but by the second day, she had began to show me the signals, as if I were an airline pilot and she was the ground crew directing the plane up to the gate. And there ultimately came the day when she told me directly—no, you must not assign me this essay on volcanoes, though I can now read it, because if this is what I have to take home, I will not be back. She had become a student of science and math and language arts and social science. I had become a student of her father’s theology. And she had progressed a little more rapidly than I had.
She got her GED; that’s the last I heard. And I received a grace. From that day to this every student I’ve had has been blessed by her determination to honor her father and her mother. I believe in teaching, good teaching, real teaching—the only path I know upon which an ordinary man can achieve where wealth and power have not.
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