By: Ellen Nimmo
Schlepping concrete onto chicken wire isn’t my forte, at least, not without a lot more practice. I know because I’ve tried. One knee in the red, Jamaican dirt and the other at a ninety degree angle for some extra urummph, I scooped and tossed the freshly mixed concrete onto the side of the wood, Styrofoam, and wire framed home only to watch it slide right back off again. The crew of skilled workers had taught me, it’s a simple flick of the wrist, mon. They made it look so easy; they worked with finesse even as they labored and I envied their precision and craft. I was trying to imitate what I saw in them, but anyone could see my efforts needed help. Brandi saw. The woman whose home we were working to complete came and knelt beside me; she scooped up the concrete I had just flung, the concrete that was sadly sliding down the chicken wire and foam instead of staying in place like it was supposed to, and as she patted the fallen concrete into its intended spot, she looked at me, grinned and in a soft voice said, “Time to try something different.” God love her.
In that moment Brandi taught me that sometimes, it is OK to try another approach. It was such a relief to me. To be seen and compassionately taught that though my skill was nowhere near that of my competent teachers I could still contribute, I could still learn. It was like a sip of cool water in the hot Jamaican sun.
I’ve been fortunate; I’ve had a lot of good teachers throughout my life. Whether or not they have found me to be a good student is another question altogether and one I’ll leave for another day, but today I am thinking about teachers. Teacher appreciation week was the first week of May, so this ode to teachers feels a bit overdue. Long overdue actually. It’s a late paper, but the merits of writing it are too important to ignore. I’ve had a lot of good teachers and I don’t always credit them for being so. A good teacher illuminates what was once hidden or forgotten by creating space for something new or space for something old to be seen afresh; good teachers are caring. A good teacher doesn’t shame or roll their eyes or steal away opportunity; a good teacher provides a path.
When I was in high school, I had a teacher named Kathleen Helms (her name has since changed along with a lot of other things). She was my English teacher and is my friend. In Mrs. Helms’ class we read poetry, we read Shakespeare, we talked about our weekends and last night’s basketball game, we read novels, we discussed characters and meaning and choices. That was her job, some might say, and true enough, but in Kathleen’s classroom we were given the opportunity to turn from our own messy lives and dive into stories, into art created to reflect and highlight the human experience. We read and discussed writings on death, on love, on romance, on fear and loathing, on violence, sadness, beauty and the resistance to change. Most of the time I understood but a scratch. The thing about Kathleen is that her teaching didn’t stop at the classroom door. In many ways, she knelt beside me, looked me square in the eye and told me things were going to be OK. There’s always another way. Always hope. And I believed her, God love her.
Another good teacher I had more recently is George Frissell. I first met George when I began attending his “World Religion Series Lunch & Learns” which he hosted in a concrete floor, multi-purpose room in Columbia, Missouri. This series took a look at some of the most prevalent and practiced religions in our world today and George, a Classical Ideas and World Religion studies teacher, struck me as being incredibly kind, intelligent and the sort of meek man that exudes inner strength. George was working part-time for Veterans United Home Loans as a contributor in the company’s cultural programming which was created to invite more understanding, empathy and inclusion in the workplace and beyond. Religion was a fierce mystery to me, even as I claimed vehemently to be an assured authority on the absence of God. In many ways, George set me straight. Like some of my favorite teachers before him, he, in essence, knelt beside me, looked me square in the eye and reminded me that I didn’t know it all, that (in fact) there was a whole lot out there which remains a mystery, but that we can be partakers in exploring that mystery if we humble ourselves into the shape of students. George taught me that there’s another way to approach the thought of Deity: openly. He showed me another way to look at the religion I had grown to see as merely a mind trick, fool’s gold. George gave me the gift of his teaching, namely, the spirit of curiosity and kindness with which to approach not only the world’s religions, but each individual too. George became more than a teacher to me, he became a leader and I’m so thankful I got the chance to know him. George died 13 days ago, God love him.
I’ve been fortunate; I’ve had many wonderful teachers. You might even be one of them, in fact, the better I listen the more I realize, good teachers are everywhere. Whether I agree with everything they say isn’t the point, but what I think I’m growing to appreciate is that most everyone has something to teach me, *if I have the patience and humility to become their student.
To all the good teachers out there: Thank You.