Last week, sitting in class, waiting for a new crop of students to come in and take their places, Italian grammar books in hand, a middle-aged woman walked in, took one look at me and asked me where the teacher I was replacing was.
“Oh, I am so sorry. Weren’t you told?” I replied “That teacher has moved away and I am taking over her class”.
The woman turned on her heels and walked out, never to return. I proceeded to teach the class and didn’t give the episode much weight.
The following morning I received a phone call from the owner and director of the school.
“You had a student last night who refused to take your class because she said you are terrible teacher”.
The comment in itself wasn’t particularly helpful, unless substantiated by some specific reasons I could work with, and I told her. In hindsight, I also didn’t appreciate how someone who hired me would start a coaching session with those very, discouraging, words.
That particular student had seen me once before, during a class I subbed a month before at the very last minute, where I did the best I could. She also went out of her way to let me know how much she didn’t like the teacher I was subbing for – someone I don’t even know – and how, the next semester, she would be enrolling with this fabulous woman who, in the meantime, picked up and left.
Regardless of whether I am a good teacher or not, the comment stung. Even if it came from someone who seemed entitled, slightly deranged and downright rude. I know I always show up having prepared for class, with a pleasant attitude, and I do the best I can to make a complex language like Italian try to come alive.
What that comment did, though, was make me question my motives for accepting a job at a ritzy school, teaching Italian to well-meaning and affluent students who are either retired, looking to spend more time in Italy or just adding another tack to their accomplishments. Whatever their motives, I commend keeping one’s brain active. I, on the other hand, took the job because of the paycheck. I don’t hate teaching Italian but I don’t wake up in the morning looking forward to it either. Why should there be something wrong in it? The majority of us is stuck performing jobs we don’t much care for and we make it work. We accept that such is life and to pay for the car, the apartment and the clothes on our backs we have to do what we have to do.
But then we tell our children to follow their dreams, to do what they love, to pursue a career based on their interests. We are, after all, the generation that aspired to ally our working lives with our interests, the common refrain “we spend most of our days at work, we might as well enjoy it”, a sort of mantra. But, sometimes, what we like is best left to the realm of recreation.
What we should encourage younger people, and ourselves, to pursue is what we believe in which, in short, is usually what is rooted in our morals. Fulfillment is not a pile of cash in the bank but a pile of cash in the bank made while doing something we believe is right – whether it’s building and marketing toy trains, working at a non-profit or advising people on how to save a nest egg is immaterial.
My plumber, a good-looking man in his 40’s, told me he loves what he does. “I am out and about all day, I fix things and problems for people, and I just love it.”
A close friend of mine, a doctor, called me a few days ago and confessed to working like a maniac, even if, financially, he could stop tomorrow. “I don’t know what else to do with my life, I lost the meaning”. So he decided to volunteer in Chiapas, Mexico, for a while, in an effort to change his perspective. Because it’s definitely not all about money – another common refrain that doesn’t make sense when struggling financially but that takes on meaning when we have enough to pay the bills but the struggle has become about getting up in the morning.
I don’t dislike teaching per se – I love teaching people how to cook – to my eyes a valuable skill to have – and mentoring young girls , especially from low-income backgrounds: show them how to stand up for themselves, how to build their lives, one block at a time. I admire people who want to take up another language – I speak four myself – but teaching them how to prepare for their next trip to Rome doesn’t do much for my soul. And, who knows?, that in itself might make me a terrible teacher because the one thing I should offer the students, my passion, is not there for the taking.
While I sit here and type away, there is no other place I desire to be. Sharing, researching, writing, editing and even working out some of my issues in public and, hopefully, inspiring or provoking a thought in even one other human being make me feel accomplished. I cannot ever aspire to be Edith Wharton but I can look at the society I live in, how it works, and at what makes us human in the 21st century and take it apart, document it and put it out there for confrontation. To me, it has a purpose – the same purpose my plumber finds in fixing leaks.
The Jewish scholar Hillel the Elder, asked provocatively:
“If I am not myself, who will be for me?” And
“But when I am for myself, who am I?”
Asking these questions of ourselves, at every juncture, and even more so when we ponder what we should be doing to earn a living, dispels many doubts.
Putting at the center of such choices the moral values that define who we are simplifies choosing the path that, in the end, will make us proud.
All photos copyright of C&S