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Anchor 4

Wisdom

In my first job, at a new Quaker school in the countryside of Maryland, teaching English, Latin, modern dance, and hockey (yes, they were desperate), I decided I needed more classroom equipment. So I went to the office of the headmaster.

C Thornton Brown was his name. We called him Thorny. But he was anything but prickly. Firm but kind, his wisdom usually broad-sided you. I would learn this through experience.

On this occasion I knocked on his always-open door, peeked in and saw him, as he often was, leaning back in his chair gazing at the Maryland October sky, a pearl in that part of the world. 'Excuse me, Thorny, do you have a minute?' I asked.

 

'Sure,' he said, bringing the chair and his attention forward. He smiled. He said nothing. Not one single extraneous word ever came out of that man’s mouth. I knew from the moment I met him that I should learn that from him. But I gave up early on. The odds against success in some things in life are just too great.

 

I plunged in, 'I need a few things for my classroom that will help me do a better job of teaching,' I said. I smiled, following his example for what to do after being breathtakingly succinct.

 

'Such as?' he asked.

 

'Well, I need a desk chair that doesn’t wobble. I need a nice wooden in-tray for letters and things, a see-through ruler, and a blotter. Oh, and coloured chalk.'

 

He kept looking at me and listening. But that was all I could think of to say. I had said what I needed, though not any of the reasons why, because they were obvious. Every teacher needs stuff like that. And anyway, it was that first semester when I was still trying out the idea of not going overboard in the talking department.

 

But he did not grant my request. Nor did he deny it. He took a long time to speak at all, but looked completely peaceful and fine. I thought maybe he was adding up the expense, so I thought about saying that I knew where we could get a used, but good, desk chair. I had seen one at the Thrift Shop down the road.

 

But something told me to wait. Uncharacteristically, I obeyed. I tried to look relaxed.

 

'Nancy,' he said gently, 'there are only four things you need in order to teach well.'

 

I listened. I figured the coloured chalk was already a goner.

 

'You need students who want to learn. You need something worthwhile to teach them. You need respect for their intelligence. And you need to be sure they speak more than you do.' I kept listening. Differently this time.

 

Somehow I was sure that if I could ever really understand what he had just said, it would change my life. (It was never straightforward going into Thorny’s office.)

 

'And,' he continued, as warmly as he had said the first thing, 'You can achieve all of those four things sitting on a log in the woods.'

 

And that was that. I didn’t know whether that was a no or a yes. I did know that it was as good as divine.

 

It did change my life. I began to understand about teaching and about learning. I began to understand that they both have very little to do with stuff and everything to do with connection.

 

I am still learning that.

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