Diary of a teacher's last year

Tenure made me soft. Then an aikido master taught me his moves.

Published December 17, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Professors can be emotional Scrooges. When a hug can be grounds for a sexual harassment lawsuit, teachers must toe a slippery tightrope. On my last teaching day of the year, I realized that students would benefit if their teachers judiciously shed their emperor's cloak. Like planning how to spend millennium eve, I was paralyzed by the pressure of ending my world religion and spirituality class with a cosmic bang. I was plagued with self-doubt until I observed my son's aikido class and watched the master's amazingly graceful performance. His actions were spare and simple, like the movements of an aged cat. He was making statements with understatement, bringing about effects with little visible cause, exhibiting what the Chinese call "wu wei," or actionless action.

We had jousted for four months in class, sometimes trivializing the significant, other times enchanting the puny, but always fending off apathy. It would be pathetic to have a mundane finish. I didn't need to emulate the aikido master's superiority, but I would have to acquire his gracefulness if we were to have a meaningful ending. The precise lesson came to me on the way home from the aikido barn.

We began class as usual with a one-minute meditation. Then I stood up and wrote two categories on the two sides of our vast blackboard: "Beliefs and behaviors that nourish spirituality" and "Beliefs and behaviors that harm spirituality." I invited students to join me in covering the board with words and pictures. Slowly they got out of their chairs and began to write: "Intolerance, hatred, war and closed-mindedness"
appeared on the harmful side, while "dancing, music, love, acceptance" was chalked on the opposite side. Soon 20 of us were standing in front of
the board, pointing and laughing at the mural. People laughed when "good sex," "bad sex" appeared on both sides and then stared as "indifference, mocking and destruction" appeared and "compassion, equality and solitude." There was a stir when somebody wrote "capitalism" on the harmful side and "communism" on the nourishing side. Little arguments broke out:

"Golf is on this side."

"No, golf is on that side."

"OK, 'good golf,' 'bad golf.'"

"That destroys the whole thing; anything can be bad or good."

"Have you heard of a 'good' war or 'good' racism?"

"But that's dualism all over again, 'good vs. evil.' Haven't we had
enough of that?"

"So, there are two kinds of people in the world."

"Yeah, the kind who divide people into two categories and the kind who don't!"

"What about higher consciousness? Is that good or bad for people?"

"How could it be bad for people?"

"What if it gets in the way of 'be here now'?"

"'Be here now' is higher consciousness!"

"Where do we put 'capacity for suffering'?"

"What about 'the fall from the garden'?"

And so on until everybody was worn out, yet elated at our tapestry of human history.


"We transcended ourselves."

"The board is full to bursting."

Even Red, Ethan and Bethany, the fervent naysayers, nodded that "both halves of the board are necessary for spiritual growth. It is a
false dichotomy." Self-awareness accumulates slowly, like a fertile archeological dig, but we had sped it up.

I wondered if my video of "Smoke" would be anticlimactic now,
but I popped it in anyway. In the film, Harvey Keitel plays Augie, a streetwise owner of a small tobacco shop in Brooklyn. William Hurt plays Paul, Augie's customer, a writer suffering from the pain of
personal loss. Augie opens his shop for Paul, who spies a camera in the store. Augie tells him that every morning he takes a photo of his shop from across the street. The 4,000 pictures represent his little corner of the universe.

As Paul hastens through the photo album, he comments, "They're all the same." "You've got to slow down," Augie says. "You're not really looking at them. They're all the same, yet each one is different." Then the film zooms in on the pictures and fills the screen with images that are a microcosm of existence: People on their way to work, walking their dogs and the change of seasons. The images shift until Paul freezes at one and stares in disbelief at the picture of his love Helen, shortly before she died.
Augie says, "It's Helen," and puts an arm around his friend as Paul begins to sob. The scene ends with a shot of the next morning; Augie is standing across the street, taking another picture of his store.

The class fell silent. I almost misunderstood it as emotional withdrawal or cynicism, but fortunately I remained silent too and allowed
the mood to settle. Then Willow, who had criticized the
class as too intellectual, said, "His little corner of the universe," and shuddered.

Red said, "It's a Buddhist film, acceptance and all that." He resisted his usual temptation to entertain the crowd with wit. Daniel, who had just written one of the sincerest accounts of personal struggle I'd ever read, declared the film to be a portrait of "one man's journey home and the paradox that 'nothing matters' and 'everything matters.'"

Bryan, usually silent and brooding, pointed out Augie's compassion for Paul and the importance of love in this world. Garrett, the worldly and traveled Jew, spoke about paying attention instead of letting people and moments pass by. Then they fell silent again.

"Well, let's go," I said finally, "before we fall into a pit of sentimentality." I had planned to show the scene because it illustrated two crucial components of spirituality: Being present in the moment and making caring connections to animate and inanimate objects. Everyone smiled and nodded as they began to pack their gear. We had skated along the edge of our complex desires for community and solitude, for involvement and detachment.

I was surprised when April came over to give me a hug, because she had seemed distant all semester. Yet her last paper mentioned an appreciation that the class had helped her find a writing voice. Then Bethany stopped and wanted to embrace. She was one who always hid in the back of class, looking perturbed and slightly sullen, rarely speaking except to voice disapproval of religious orthodoxy. But at the end, Bethany was fighting her emotions, and gripped me hard before mumbling something and leaving. After a semester of gestation, we were suddenly aware of what we had accomplished together, like a moment of satori in Zen Buddhism. We had given each other power rather than taking it away.
It was just coincidental that Christmas vacation was near. Our
class had cultivated a taste of global culture, an expansion of perspective
that discouraged ethnocentrism. Our experience that day seemed like some faint whiff of, dare I say, Christian charity. Perhaps "the spirit of Christmas" touched us with its wand, corny as it sounds.

My postmodern side wanted to erase the moment immediately in order to detach myself, but the mood was irresistible. Scrooge was reconstructed. If it had been "mere Christianity," to quote C.S. Lewis,
Red and Karen and Josh wouldn't have been part of the revelation. Buddha, Gandhi and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Lao Tzu and Black Elk and other icons were present, along with Jesus, lending us their grace and giving us permission to destroy obstacles to solidarity. We edged toward the door and into the world again. It was getting cold outside; the wind blew leaves and the sun was buried behind gathering clouds.

I waited until the others were out of sight before I shed a few
tears, wondering why I had maintained such emotional distance from my students. My next-to-last semester had come to an end, and suddenly I missed my students terribly. I wanted to embrace every one of them, from the troublesome David, who infuriated me with his procrastination,
to the acerbic Jane, whose sarcasm provoked anger in her peers.

The aikido master didn't teach me anything new; he simply inspired me to pay attention. After 31 years of teaching, I was also a master, but tenure had made me lazy. I vowed to start next semester with the full realization that I am a master and should conduct myself as one. The aikido master had stood in the center of the room with his arms folded, smiling slightly, before extending his hands in greeting and bowed. I wish he could have been in the classroom that day. We could have all bowed back.

By David Alford

David Alford lives and works on a ranch in the Sierras, near the town of Avery, CA.

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