Looking Into Their Eyes

Reflections of Heart and Courage – Part IV

By Jorge D. H. Prósperi

What I remember most about Mrs. Beals is the look in her eyes – face to face I could see my reflection. Now I pause to realize that Mrs. Beals saw each child the same way. The minutes she spent with me were always mine. She was there to guide, nudge and show the way with patience, dedication, authenticity and a love for her profession. She gave so much.

Mrs. Beals and I worked together for two years and she was instrumental in guiding me and my family to the right high school. She intervened and advocated. In time I began to wonder about what motivated Mrs. Beals to dedicate hours on a 2nd language immigrant. She was not Latina. She did not speak Spanish. She did not get extra pay for her efforts. She sought me out. She met my mother and made her feel safe and welcomed. She was relentless in her advocacy. Mrs. Beals kept track of me. She knew that I was at least a couple years behind academically. She knew that I would struggle in every class. But she counted on her belief that we had built enough language skills and resiliency to survive.

The problem was that I was beginning to speak without an accent and therefore, teachers did not know of my unreadiness to tackle textbook language. Each content had its own vocabulary. The same challenges came into play with some teachers not knowing that a lack of language skills by an immigrant does not mean that they are not intelligent. You would think that most teachers could figure that out without going to a workshop.

But some high school teachers had figured it out – a math, history and art teacher. Three wizards, sorcerers making magic all day long. My grades were not any better in their classes. I had to repeat classes, go to summer school, but in their classes I was learning. So what did they have in common? They all saw me.

They never seemed to shout. Their voices had tone and timber never seemed to drone or relentlessly repeat. They did not finish their sentences with OK? or RIGHT? There was a flow when they spoke. I wanted to listen. They seemed to always be telling a story and acting it out. Regardless of the subject matter, for each of them, language mattered. All of them were teaching me English through their subjects. Content was still viewed at a distance.

They drew attention but not to themselves. It seemed that they were ever concerned about each of us individually and as a community trying to discover those illusive learning styles that we kept secret. They were able to connect content with related concepts using language surrounded by synonyms and antonyms. They were big fans of metaphors. They challenged us to walk with them towards open canvases in black and white slowly turning them into vibrant landscapes in living color. They urged and dared us to try, and so we did. They never shamed us.

I remember feeling so good – so damn good inside – that delicious good feeling when conceptualization is affirmed and validated – not by a grade – but a connectedness, a comfortableness with knowledge and its comprehension – without the fear of failure or allowing past negative experiences to suppress the inherent zeal – that hunger to know. I still get goosebumps when I remember. They knew and believed that it was all inside of us and would unfold.

High school went by in a flash. I survived another step. A decision had to be made. Get a job or… college!? I shuddered at the very word. Thankfully, my parents made the decision for me. “Go to school. You will be the first to graduate! Adelante con fuerza y ganas (forward with strength and will)!” followed by more “abrazos” and “besos.”

With much support, I entered a junior college. Upon applying to the university, I failed the English entrance exam twice. Each time my parents insisted to try again and again. My “ganas” were running on fumes. I remember getting a letter and giving it to my mother to open. She did and then gave it back for me to read. I had been accepted on probation because I had barely passed the English exam. That’s all I needed – an opportunity – I would do the rest. My family thought that I had been admitted to Harvard – no Oxford!

College at first was tough, but I had the hunger to learn. Other students may have been smarter, but no one was going to out work me. I showed up early, remained fully present, with homework handed in on time. In time, more wizards and sorcerer came my way. They had the same characteristics as Mrs. Beals and high school teachers. They inspired, they listened, they saw us – really saw us.

One of the wizards, upon returning a paper, asked me to see her after class. It had a C grade. The paper looked as if she had bled all over it – words circled, arrows going everywhere. She said that she was proud of my work. She did not mention the spelling or grammar. She found it interesting in how I expressed my thinking, “Your paper is a C as to structure, but your thinking is a A+. Don’t stop writing Jorge, regardless of the grammar, spelling mistakes, don’t stop writing.” So I didn’t. College days passed quickly and by the end of Junior year I was on the Dean’s List with a few decimal points away from a 4.0.

Another college instructor, this time at the doctoral level, informed me that my academic writing would need serious and diligent attention because scholars would scrutinize my work. It was after a long and tedious editing session, that she paused, looked into my eyes and said with insistence, Don’t you dare Jorge, don’t you dare lose your voice – don’t you dare!” 

Wow, I had not heard a teacher be so demanding – at least in such a pro-active manner – especially after a couple of hours of critiques! The doctorate took some 6 years to complete. It was a complex, grueling and joyous journey all in one. Qualitative research demands tedious attention – management – organization and relentless review.

Just when I thought I knew something, the doctorate humbled me back to reality. But the ‘not knowing’ was now different. It could and would be pursued with confidence and  vigor, regardless of the rigor.

I was truly blessed with stellar wizards and sorcerers. They saw something in us that we did not see in ourselves. They sought us out. They went far, far beyond technique, methods and content. They had the courage to be different. They had the ability to connect one-on-one  and be comfortable with some 40 sets of eyes looking back. They loved their profession – they loved to see us succeed. They inspired us to become thinkers beyond grades. They reveled upon hearing our voices from the inside. They were relentless in their selfless efforts – with no strings attached. Above all else, they loved us – each of us.

“As good teachers weave the fabric that joins them with students and subjects, the heart is the loom on which the threads are tied, the tension is held, the shuttle flies, and the fabric is wretched tight. Small wonder, then, that the teaching tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the heart – and the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be. The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require.”
The Courage to Teach by Parker J. Palmer, 1998