“Find the job you would do for free and then get someone to pay you to do it.”This is the advice I give to students at freshman orientation, in mentoring programs, in beginning language classes. It’s the philosophy that makes the beginning of each semester so exciting, the end so satisfying. It’s part of what makes it so much fun to be a teacher. The real joy, though, comes from what the teacher learns, and these most important things are rarely those one reads in the small hours of the morning while preparing the next day’s classes. My first teaching job was a 10-month contract with a Centro Colombo-Americano, a bicultural center in Cucutá, a small city on the Colombia-Venezuela border. I was 17, six months out of high school. I knew no Spanish and even less about how to teach. Only one person in the family that hosted me spoke even a little English. My contract said I was a teacher, but it was my students whose patience enabled me to learn language, customs, and culture. These ranged in background and education from a gentleman who served as Spain’s vice-consul to Ana, a live-in maid who was illiterate in her own native Spanish. From her small salary Ana had saved enough to register for a beginning English class. One weekend during that six-week session she invited me to go with her, first by bus and then on horseback, to her family’s small sugar cane farm high in the Andes, two tiny whitewashed rooms under a sky so starry that it looked as though all the treasure of Ali Baba’s cave had been flung into the heavens. Country people filled the house that weekend, bringing instruments to play and to dance until morning and I, the teacher, learned to appreciate the hospitality of the poor and unlettered. My next teaching job was as a semi-permanent fill-in for the adult ESL (English as a Second Language) and basic education programs in the South Bend, Indiana, public schools. During this time a traffic accident took the life of one of the newly arrived Cambodian refugees in the community. Our entire staff attended the funeral. As we left, each of us was given a piece of candy and a coin, the candy as a reminder that there is sweetness even in unbearable sorrow and the coin a wish for prosperity for those who had offered comfort and support. And I, the teacher, learned that even when we are filled with pain, we still have something to offer to others. An older African-American woman in the self-paced GED (General Educational Development) preparation lab never missed a day, so it was a surprise to see her seat empty three days straight. When she returned, I asked if she had been ill. She replied that she “couldn’t come because my son was killed this weekend and the funeral was yesterday.” She then quietly returned to her books. And I, the teacher, learned that somewhere within us we are able to find the strength to do what we must, even when our hearts are breaking. The Work-Release Basic Education program made attendance at GED preparation classes and job training an alternative to prison for some offenders, a condition for parole for others. Street smart and brash, many of the participants found a study carrel to be the only quiet place in their otherwise chaotic lives, a teacher’s ear to be the only one that listened without issuing a challenge. There I saw drug dealers who had made and lost a fortune on the street eager to learn to read well enough to fill out a job application. Masks fell as trust increased. One young man, increasingly nervous as the day of his graduation from the literacy program grew nearer, finally revealed the cause of his reluctance to go on to the next step of training at a technical institute: “Could you teach me how to read a ruler? I need to know how to measure stuff if I’m going to make it in the other school.” And I, the teacher, learned how wrong it is to assume that everyone builds on the same foundation I had taken for granted. Aimee was a welfare mom with two small children, one of them a 6 year old with a severe physical handicap. Her landlord had sold the house she was renting and none of her friends or relatives had room for her and her children to stay together. Aimee was determined to resist the invitation of her abusive alcoholic ex-husband to “come on, Baby, and let me take care of you.” One day, working her way through a lesson in U. S. history, she told me, “You know, I used to hate white people for what they did to my people. But now I know that they were just doing what their parents taught them and their parents did what they learned from their parents. That’s why I’ve got to get my GED—so I can get off welfare and teach my kids the right way.” And I, the teacher, learned that the poorest in money can be the richest in wisdom, that knowledge can destroy prejudice and lead to forgiveness. Aimee’s courage and perseverance shamed me into returning to school for a college degree. I was 32, the mother of three young daughters, and the first in my family to go beyond high school. Thanks to a few part-time credits, overloads, and the old CLEP (College Level Equivalency Program) tests, I completed four years of college in five semesters. Thrilled with my degree, I called Aimee to share the news and to thank her for being my inspiration. She had no idea who I was, couldn’t remember that we had ever met. And I, the teacher, learned that we influence people the most by the way we go about our day-to-day business, when we are least aware that we are being observed. Language barriers, cultural differences, convicted felons— nothing prepares you for teaching five classes of 30 students every day in an American high school. The first thing I learned as a full-time high school teacher was the meaning of sheer physical and mental fatigue, the need to collapse on the couch by the front door for half an hour before being able to gather the energy to walk into the kitchen to fix a cup of tea. The second thing was how desperately young adults want to be recognized for who they are, how important it is that teachers know them. This is still a concern expressed by incoming freshman during orientation at Notre Dame: “What are you most worried about as far as your professors are concerned?” “I’m afraid they won’t know my name.” The third thing I learned is how far students are willing to go if only they are given credit for being as smart and creative as they are. My favorite class as a high school teacher was a special Spanish class made up of all the class clowns, goof-offs, discipline problems, and troublemakers who needed a second year of a foreign language on their transcripts but who disrupted my colleagues’ more traditional classrooms. If it is true that creativity is the highest form of intelligence, this was the smartest group in school, but we couldn’t work together until “us and them” became “all of us.” One particularly frustrating day, I stopped the lesson and, not trusting myself to stand face to face with them without losing my temper, walked to the back of the room. There, I acknowledged what I knew they shared in gripe sessions. “You look at me and see a middle-aged lady who dresses funny and who wants you to learn a bunch of stuff you’ll never need. Did you ever ask yourselves what I see when I look at you?” One by one I went down the rows. “There is Steve. He thinks everyone expects him to be joking around all the time, but if you watch him, you will see how careful he is that his jokes don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. Then there’s Brian. He thinks he’s just part of the crowd. He doesn’t know how his insights make even his teachers respect his opinions and that people do notice how smart he is.” By the time I had gone through all 32 students—and finding something positive to say about some of them was a stretch—we had become a unit. The qualities that had sabotaged learning had been harnessed. From that day, there was nowhere I asked this class to go that they weren’t eager to get to first. And I learned that our tendency to tell people what’s wrong with them before giving praise produces nothing. People need to hear that others recognize what’s right before they can work to their potential. For the past 13 years, I have been teaching introductory and intermediate language and culture classes at Notre Dame. Each of those years I have thought, “God and the computer were really kind to me this year. I’ve never had a class like this one.” We start with the basics that everyone remembers from required language classes, and students go on to another class just when they have mastered enough of the foreign language to be able to really express their ideas . . . to someone else. Still, what a journey we make together. The syllabus shows a starting and an ending point, but we take detours over mountains (things we try that are harder than any of us thought could be achieved), into deserts (my ideas that produce nothing but dust—but at least we tried something new), into ruts (we all have our off days), and on scenic routes that break us out of the routine. Sometimes the students are the leaders. Rather than teach them, I show them how to learn; and they do, exceeding my expectations and making me race to keep up. Sister Maria Concepta McDermott, CSC, my mentor and friend, used to say that if you want to be a teacher, you have to really love it “because there are easier ways to die poor.” She was almost right. If you teach and if you love it, no one in the world is richer than you.
Barbara J. Mangione teaches in the Notre Dame Department of Romance Languages and Literature.