Oct 032016
 

Many recall at least one teacher who, because they saw something in us, changed our lives. Sadly, we seldom take time to thank them.

In every school there are teachers to be avoided. Sometimes for good reason, but just as often, the object of our terror was the teacher who demanded what they knew we could produce. Our fear lay in our insecurity and lack of self-confidence. What we said to hide our fear was “She’s too tough!” or, “He’s really mean!”

I approached junior year in high school with a fair amount of math success on my very brief resume. I loved geometry, partly because of Sister Barbara, who was young, enthusiastic and smiled a great deal. Algebra was not my favorite, but I managed reasonable grades.

But as I approached junior year, I was about to face, not only trigonometry, but one of the teachers we feared most, Sister Ann.

As the year began, I discovered the most fearsome thing about Sister Ann was that she had high expectations, and was not about to compromise. She believed in us and cared deeply about our success. And while my trepidation remained, especially before exams, it eased greatly as I discovered I was, more often than not, able to live into her expectations.

But no amount of success on traditional lessons could prepare me for one pivotal day during my senior year.

We had a small class of fourth-year math students. Because we were the few who agreed to test our mettle against the most advance math offered, Sister Ann raised her expectations. She devised a truly terrifying challenge. Each of us was assigned a complex mathematical topic, totally unrelated to the fourth-year syllabus. We were told not only to research the topic, but to hone our understanding so we could present it coherently to the rest of the class.

I have no recollection of the topic assigned, but I remember sitting in the library, staring blankly into texts that held my future. I read and reread the words, but understanding eluded me for what seemed like hours. I felt lost and very alone. But I pushed on; I had no choice.

I can still recall—even re-feel—the moment of elation when the shroud lowered. The euphoria emanated, not from a cursory understanding, but from a deep sense of comprehension. I couldn’t wait to share my excitement with my classmates.

So we come to the day Sister Ann helped me, actually she demanded I, see myself in a new way. Those moments, standing next to the, now ancient, overhead projector, tendered a sense of joy I had never before experienced. In those moments, a facility arose in me; I found myself turning complexity into simplicity. It felt magical.

I have come to know, at heart, I am a teacher. In every talk I give, in every word I write, I strive to turn complexity into simplicity. My goal is to help others understand something that may have eluded them. There is a bit of Sister Ann in everything I do.

I am indebted to you, Sister Ann, for changing my life. You may not have been the first to witness me as a teacher, but you were the first to help me witness myself in that way. I am more because of you, and I am so very thankful.

Postscript: I wrote this with a deep sense of regret. Why had I waited 46 years to express my gratitude? I was certain it was too late to tell Sr. Ann personally.

However, thanks to a classmate, I found Sr. Ann Ozog. I called her and had an opportunity to tell her how she changed my life. It filled my heart with joy.

This amazing woman, along with 20 other Felician sisters, including Sr. Barbara, founded a new religious order, Servants of Jesus. Sr. Ann eventually returned to school to get a law degree and spent twenty years fighting on behalf of the abused, poor and underprivileged.

After I sent this note, she emailed, in part: “To one who made my day! The more I listened to your thoughts, the more I was humbled. If you are who you are because of me or in spite of me, I thank you for the compliments.”

Sadly, Sr. Barbara died just four years ago. If there is someone you need to thank, do it today.

Sep 172016
 

The 14-year-old who called the hotline last week was in desperate need of healing and self-absolution.  I realize now, the seed of the conversation we shared was planted nearly 40 years ago.

After finishing my master’s degree, I was invited to teach mathematics at The Hun School, a private, preparatory school just outside of Princeton, NJ. Teaching encompassed four years of my life, but, for my students, I will have been their math teacher for the entirety of theirs. When you fail in many endeavors, there is often a remedy. When you fail as a teacher, your students live with your ineptitude until the day they pass from this Earth.

I often felt inept…unpolished…incapable of reaching the students who struggled mightily with algebra, geometry and trigonometry. Often, they needed a guide with great patience, and I came up short. Those failures weigh heavily even 40 years later.

A note recently left on my website, reminded me of moments in which, perhaps, I was less inept. I was touched by the memories it evoked. The missive was from Hossein Haj-Hariri, who arrived from Iran in his junior year. I could present him as proof of my success as a teacher, but Hossein would have excelled with nearly any teacher. He worked diligently, but he had an innate aptitude for mathematics. He and a few of his peers easily opened their minds to the concepts behind the numbers and the theory. Hossein subsequently spent 28 years on the faculty at University of Virginia, and was recently named dean of the College of Engineering and Computing at The University of South Carolina.

In spite of their innate ability, I remember one or two moments when Hossein and friends came with a question, standing on the precipice of understanding, but not quite over the edge. In those moments, we would engage with the mathematics; when understanding eluded us we would ask each other if we could possibly see the problem another way. As we challenged each other to look anew, there would come a moment when their eyes—or mine—would light up as we completed a critical neural pathway and a new piece of the puzzling language of mathematics fell into place. Those moments too, I remember 40 years later.

I had no idea how central to my very being the idea of seeing another way would become. This week, the young boy who called the suicide hotline was wracked by disease. The ensuing bullying from both peers and self, demarcated a life of failure, pain and self-loathing. And yet, every story he recounted spoke of his caring, generosity and fierce defense of loved ones. Late in our time together, I asked him to describe something, anything, wonderful within. “I can’t,” he told me in a soft voice. “I hate everything about myself.” So I began to recount his stories of caring, generosity and love, and asked if he could witness, not shortcomings, but his huge heart. “It’s your superpower,” I suggested. I also told him I loved him, and who he is in the world. Near tears he told me those were words he seldom hears. “Would you be willing to see your life through your enormous heart?” I asked just before the call ended. “Thank you, I will try,” were his final words to me.

So thank you Dr. Haj-Hariri for helping me discover the power of the simple question, “Could we see it another way?” You helped me ease the horrific pain of a young man whose enormous heart lay hidden.

Jun 282016
 

I began as I always do…“Thank you for calling the depression hotline. How can I help?” The young man at the other end sounded disappointed; he had hoped to discuss, not depression, but anger management.

He had just left a store and was sitting in his car, overwhelmed with anger and self-loathing. Moments earlier, he became frustrated in the checkout line. When his frustration got the best of him, he lashed out at a woman, letting loose some hurtful comments. He was deeply disappointed and judging himself unmercifully. “It’s not the person I want to be,” he explained in a voice near tears. What I could hear was his fear that unreasonable, unrestrained anger defined him. “This is the kind of thing I won’t let go of for weeks,” he admitted.

As we talked, I came to understand the complexity and confusion that defined his life. He faced many difficult decisions and emotional battles, yet had no one he could look to for support. He was an only child, his parents were both gone, and his wife simply did not understand. He felt abandoned and very alone. My heart broke for a young man crying out for some measure of comfort.

No one calls the hotline with profound feelings of self-disappointment and failure if they are not molded from a core of kindness, generosity and humanity. I asked if he would wish to be a person who regrets letting himself and the world down, or if he would rather be a person who acts without humanity and simply does not care? “I want to be the person who is deeply sorry,” he said without hesitation. “So, in this moment, you are being exactly the person you hope to be?” He paused and, with a bit of intrigue, admitted he was.

While he did not understand Buddhism in depth, he had been introduced to it when practicing meditation with a friend from Thailand. Reaching back to the Buddhist aphorism that when the student is ready the teacher will appear, I asked if he had learned something about himself as a result of losing his temper. “If something similar happens in the future, can you imagine being more gentle, kind and loving in that moment?” “Absolutely,” he said. “So you are a wiser, kinder, and more generous human being than you were even a few moments ago?” I pressed. “It never occurred to me to think of it that way,” he confessed, “but maybe I am.”

“I’m not suggesting you should ever intentionally hurt others in order to gain self-awareness, but, and I hate to break it to you, you are after all, only human. You will likely err again.”

In spite of our wish to always be kind, gentle, generous people, and in spite of our most heroic efforts, each of us will fail to live up to our expectations of self, time and time again. We can use moments of failure to define us as inadequate, horrible human beings, or they can afford unique insights into who we actually are, and who we wish to be. As Abraham Lincoln suggested we can allow ourselves be touched by the “better angels of our nature.”

As my new young friend began to grasp the profundity of this ancient wisdom, I could feel the weight of the world lift ever so slightly from his overburdened shoulders. “You’re amazing!” he exclaimed near the end of our time together.

As time has allowed me to reflect, I would wish for one more moment with my young protégé. “First, it is you who is amazing my young friend. I can sense how much you strive for wisdom, goodness and generosity in the face of profound confusion and abject loneliness. Your immense humanity inspires me. Second, I have done little other than share a bit of insight that comes to us through the wisdom of the ages. I am simply thankful for having been able to reach for it when you needed it. Finally, I will not consider myself anything near amazing until I can hear in my own life the voice of self-compassion and love I am asking you to hear in yours.”

As these words appear, I am grateful to have this young man remind me the “better angels of our nature” are always inspiring.