Thursday, July 25, 2013

Learning the Lesson of Orpheus

Your first year as a teacher is unlike any other.  Over my many years, the classes blend into one another  and it becomes difficult to keep track.  But the first year remains fairly much intact because it was the first to make an impression.  It was the first tell you what teaching was about.

At the end of the first year, the seniors I taught were graduating.  I was, perhaps, a bit more emotional than I should have been.  I worked very hard that year to connect to them all.  And while I never descended to the level of being their "buddy," I did form a kind of friendship with many.  It was a rookie mistake, I know.  But while they were seniors, I was really a freshmen at teaching.

When the awards assembly was over, we shuffled out of the gymnasium as as friends hugged and family members gathered for pictures.  But as I left, I noticed a small group of students gather around the head of our music ministry.  As I watched, they presented her with a parting gift.  There were hugs and tears and a great deal of genuine affection shared.

Now I share with you my reaction to this sight.  And please, I write this is in utter embarrassment.

I thought:  "What about me?  I listened to their problems, I worked hard with them after school, I gave every ounce of effort to make their classes fun and exciting.  Didn't they laugh at my jokes?  Didn't they appreciate what I did?  Am I going to be forgotten and everything I've taught erased from their memory?  Am I simply going to be that teacher that they have trouble recalling at the reunion years later: 'What was that guy's name?  The one who taught religion and was obsessed with Star Wars?'  Didn't I rank at least a card or a small trinket from the dollar store?"

It was the sting of the perceived slight.  It is that feeling we get that says, "I love you more than you love me."  And I loved my students.  I prayed for them every day and I begged God to give me to grace to teach them well.

But what did I expect for that?  A standing ovation.

Here is the sad part: the answer was yes.  It wasn't just that I wanted acknowledgment, I thought I had somehow earned it.  Esteem and gratitude was something I believed owed me for my hard work.

Now, think about this for a moment.  I had only been teaching a year.  I was surrounded by people who had more experience, dedication, and success in teaching than I will ever have.  And yet, somehow I was supposed to be raised above all of them and singled out?  I would call it arrogance, but that doesn't sound like a strong enough word.

I don't think I'm alone in desire acknowledgment.  Most of long for praise.  Maybe I'm wrong, but I think all of us harbor a secret fantasy that someone will one day notice us in our ordinary lives and see that we are, in fact, a cut above the rest.  At Kareokee we want someone to say, "You should be on Broadway."  At work, we want them to say "You're the best guy we've got."  At home, we want the people there to say, "we would be lost without you."  That desire may loom larger in someone like me, but I think there is a small part of us that craves this.  We want to be praised for our brains, our looks, our character, our work, our talents and anything else we think sets us apart.  We want it!

Here's the problem: if you want it, you probably shouldn't get it.

I don't mean to say that you, dear reader, are not worthy of praise.  But if you are motivated by accolades, you will miss the real task in front of you.  To do so would to act like Orpheus.

In the tragic Greek myth, Orpheus was a masterful musician who was married to the beautiful Euridice.  Sadly Euridice died, but Orpheus was determined to win her back.  He found the entrance to the nether world and climbed down the cave until he found Hades, god of the dead, and his wife Persephone.  Orpheus then used all of his talent and skill to play a song so beautiful that it moved even the Queen of the Dead to tears.  He was allowed, therefore, to bring Euridice back to the land of the living on the condition that he not look at her until they escape the cave.  Orpheus grabbed Euridice's hand and they took the long journey forward.  After a long while they were almost to the cave entrance when Orpheus heard Euridice slip.  He instinctively turned to help her, but because he did so, he lost her forever.

Orpheus wanted Euridice.  But that was not the task set before him.  He had to get her out of the cave.  He could not worry about anything else.  If he focused on his desire, he would lose the thing he loved.

Some of the things we desire most in life we have stop chasing if we want to have them.  How often have you heard someone say to the lovelorn: "Love will find you?"  What they mean is that if you try too hard to romance someone, it will push them away.  We see that in friendship too.  I was a huge fan of the TV show The Office.  Michael Scott was an immature, affection-starved man-child.  He desperately wanted friends and attention.  But when he tried too hard to force people's affections, it was very uncomfortable and off-putting (often to hilarious effect).  Yet when he stopped trying, and he was just genuinely kind without thinking about it, people were drawn to him.

Focussing on getting what you want from others makes you what Fr. Larry Richards calls a "Black Hole Personality."  This is the kind of person who always has to make themselves the center of attention and pull everything back to themselves.  This repels people from them, thus starving them of the thing that the crave the most: affection.  But the great irony is that if they want to get what they want, they have to not be like Orpheus.  They have to be a friend with no agenda and then the affection they desire will come.

And that is what I had to learn as a teacher.  After that first year and after confronting my horribly narcissistic desires, I had to change.  I had to forget about being liked.  I had not care about being remembered.  I had to focus only on doing what was best for the students and be satisfied that their lives were better even if they never remembered why.  I had to focus on the task at hand and get them out of the cave.

And so I went forward and found where I could help most.  I became a strong disciplinarian because I found that it helped the students even though they hated it.  I threw myself into my lessons, trying to come up with even more novel and profound ways to teach the subject.  I joined and started more clubs because I wanted the students, especially the ones on the fringes, to have a sense of connection and community.  Some students liked me, some hated me, but I did not let either affect how I behaved.

For budgetary reasons, I was let go from that school a few years later.  I had quickly lined up another teaching job, praise God.  But it was with a heavy heart that I sat through my final awards assembly as the seniors began to say their goodbyes.

But before the ceremony was over, one more student went to the podium.  And she said my name.  She said to those in attendance words that I will never forget.  I will never forget what she said, nor will I ever be worth of those words.  Among her generous remarks, she said that those who did not have my class were unfortunate and that those who attended should treasure their memories.  She then presented me with one of my cherished possessions:  A Justice League folder containing hand written letters from the graduating class telling me how I touched their lives.  And then to my deepest surprise, I received a standing ovation from those gathered.

I share that last story not to imply that this honor was necessarily deserved.  But I can tell you if I had worked specifically for that accolade, I don't think I could ever be the kind of person who would get one.  It reminds of the words of St. Francis: it is in giving that we receive.

I am surrounded by people more giving and with greater humility than I have with me.  I am sure that you are too.  Take a moment to day and affirm them in their work, their talent, their effort.  They don't do it for the recognition, I'm sure.

But if they've helped you out of the cave, you should give them your thanks.

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