I read a bit of a haiku poem (in a James Bond thriller, of all places) that said ‘you only live twice/ once when you are born/ and once when you look death in the face’.
Having taught thousands of youngsters (and dealt with their parents) and watched them grow up over three decades, I smile wryly to myself to think how right the poet was.
I don’t know what exactly he meant about the moment of being born (maybe I missed something there!) but if by truly living we mean being ‘wide awake’ to the world and to one’s own thoughts and feelings (Maslow’s concept of peak experiences), it is indeed true that most of us sleepwalk through life (look up this blogpost), waking up momentarily when we are just about to die, or when we watch someone close dying in front of our eyes. It has been well said that if all of us were told that the planet was going to be destroyed tomorrow, all the phone lines in the world would be jammed by people trying to call and tell long-neglected others how much they were loved (and confessing that they were guilty of all sorts of socially-enforced pretence earlier in not confessing their love). All talk of business deals and scientific breakthroughs and political manouevrings and attending parties and love affairs of the teenage sort would be instantly forgotten as utterly trivial. No wonder the great religious teachers (Schumacher aptly called them ‘great masters of living’) of all lands and ages have told us to live as if there would be no tomorrow.
It rankles particularly if you have been a teacher all your life. That too, someone who tries to ‘teach’ literature, and feels strongly about it (rather than merely doing it as a livelihood), and sees how thousands of people – including supposedly bright people – take notes, practise answering set questions, get through examinations with good marks (which is all they have been told to care about), and forget everything – if they ever really understood anything at all – immediately afterwards; not letting anything they have been ‘taught’ to affect their behaviour, their outlook, their moral fibre, their lives in any significant way. I have not only had a pupil tell me 15 years after the event that he had at last understood the message of O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi (which, at least, was a gratifying thing), but I have lost count of how many old boys and girls I have had to give a patient ear to when they got back to complain or lament about hard lessons learnt later in life in the family, workplace, neighbourhood, police station, hospital, morgue and crematorium. And when I have sometimes pointed out to them that these things which now appeared to be of the utmost importance, these were the very things that were discussed in the course of our literature classes long ago when they were not really paying attention (or bothering more about their clothes and bikes and girlfriends, or science courses and college admissions and things like that), I have seen mostly blank stares, or worse still, the pathetic refrain ‘But now it’s happening to me’ – as if that really makes the tragedy all-important and deserving of special attention. And if I don’t fall clucking all over them, I come across as extraordinarily obtuse and hard-hearted…
I have talked myself hoarse trying to explain some of the great Shakespearean tragedies, and Shaw’s plays like Saint Joan, and novels like The Old Man and the Sea and Lord of the Flies, short stories like The Happy Prince, The Last Leaf, How much land does a man require, The Boss came to dinner, The Devoted Son, and poems like A Psalm of Life, Where the mind is without fear, The Brook, Lines written in early spring, The Man with the hoe… to cite just a tiny fraction of all the literary works I have had to deal with. Few people, I know, have learnt anything at all. More and more I realize you cannot teach anybody what s/he doesn’t want to learn. And especially so in this age, when no learning is valued for its own sake or even for its likely long-term benefits (such as knowing how to live well … to do which you need to learn honesty, and toughness, and courage, and self-control and acceptance, and empathy for others' suffering and laughter in the face of despair and things like that, infinitely more than you need any physics or math or biology). You hear someone cribbing about office politics and you remind her of something she had read in class with me, and pat comes the defence, ‘Oh, that was only a story; this is for real, this is happening to me!’ You try consoling someone who has been jilted in love by similarly reminding him of a warning that was part of a poem in his school syllabus, and you get the same reply. You try telling someone how he was taught long ago that one must learn to handle the fact that luck often plays truant and fouls up our best laid plans, and all you see is a displeased grimace, and you can read his mind – ‘Why shouldn’t I be different from all the rest of mankind?’ (and some people call me an egotist!)
Reminds me of the way the Buddha taught the woman who was distraught after losing her only child the supreme lesson of acceptance. I wish there were teachers like that around: we need them much more today. I have tried, but failed.