Getting the question right is, perhaps, more important than the answer.
|What Am I Doing Here?
Wherein the author surmises, perhaps even theorizes, that the questions one asks himself can be life-changing, if not cataclysmic. Mr. Smith asked himself the question two times. The answers led to a vocation about which he is passionate and at which he excels.
Most of us have used the phrase that forms the title to this piece. If you have, you'll have a leg up on understanding. If you haven't, you'll have a treat coming as we deal with the significance of these little words when used together.
Recently, a new acquaintance, Mr. Smith, impressed me. There were anomalies about him that nagged me to ask questions. We first laid eyes on each other at his acreage in rural northeast Nebraska. He's tall, probably six five or six, pretty good size around without being fat, longish hair, glasses (I think), wearing overalls and sandals with no socks. That last item made it pretty obvious he was from some other place 'cause you won't see any self-respecting, rural Nebraskan with sandals on his feet with or without socks! He was living in this used-to-be-farm-house with his Dad with a big pickup truck and a Cadillac sitting in the yard. There aren't a lot of neat-niks in our northeast section of rural Nebraska so it means something to say the place, made up of around 20 acres surrounded by farm land, had been allowed to get pretty seedy. There was junk, weeds, some of them big enough to require a chain saw to cut down, unpainted buildings, more junk, and lack of care evident. At the same time, there were signs things were about to change. There was a new roof on the part of the barn that didn't face the road, there was a pretty new garden tractor with lawnmower sitting in the pickup, and thistles had been sprayed in the pastures that form one end of the place. There was still a long way to go but progress was notable. If you are a worker at the local elevator or fix tires at a repair shop, fixing up a place is the last item on your agenda so he was a curiosity right off the bat.
My reason for stopping was to welcome our new neighbor as his place is about a mile from where our motor home is parked in the summer.
We talked as newly met fellas do about this and that. He was interested in the history of his place about which I knew a little. He was easy to talk with, was interested and interesting, and asked about the area and it's history. He told me a bit about himself. He teaches high school in northeast Arizona at a place that sounded like “Chitlin” to me but turned out to be Chinle. My wife and I've been through the area and it makes northeast Nebraska look very highly populated.
It was a good conversation. His words flowed easily, he was well spoken with a certain charm, but a little different too. One begins to smell a story here.
The second time we met, I stopped to drop off a chunk of summer sausage fresh from a little locker plant at Thurston. We talked more. I learned about his very old dog for which he cared deeply, looked at his new tractor with loader for moving snow in the winter, saw that mowing had commenced (with a lot left to be done), was given to understand that he was working on turning the hog house into a weather tight building for art (THAT will be a fine topic for gee-whizzing and head scratching in the area), and discovered that we both had business to do at the nearest farm store some 14 miles away in Wayne and decided to go together.
All that is by way of letting you know that we had time for more conversation during which I asked how he came to be teaching English literature in Chinle, Arizona.
At long last, we get to the point of this story. Mr. Smith described his epiphany at about age 25 while knocking around Europe staying at hotels, hostels, climbing mountains, and doing odd jobs for income. As he described it, the thought just popped up that he should be doing something productive. Productive wasn't his word but he'll probably agree with use of it here.
To make a long story a little less long, he concluded he needed more education than high school and a bit of college, so he "knocked around in schools" including the Sorbonne, and the University of Arizona to get a degree. He kept at it, ending with a minor in education (so he could teach in secondary schools most anywhere), a major in English, a Masters in something, and a PhD. in comparative literature. He took a job teaching at a fancy prep school (I think for boys) in San Diego where he could surf the ocean to his heart's content when he wasn't working. He was leading the good life except for this damn question that came to him a second time and forms the title of this piece. Once again, it interrupted his “style” or comfort.
The question came to him every so often, as he taught his advantaged kids, I guess. He said it came to his mind for the final time after he'd been asked to teach economics to second semester seniors at this school for rich kids. He declined, thinking no second semester senior would be interested in such a class as they'd already been accepted into the college (probably of their choice). Their main concentration would be on goofing off and getting girls. He didn't relish the challenge of getting them to be serious about money. Acquiescence came as he was given the consequences of not doing it.
Not having a deep background in the field stumped him for a bit but he finally hit on assigning the students the task of participating in a contest that Yahoo.com had going. The contest was that participants were “given” $100,000 in play money which they were to “invest” in the stock market. The person with the most “money” at the end of the contest would get a million real dollars. He figured that might fire them up. So he made the assignment and told them not to bother him anymore.
During one of the classes he saw some of the kids gathered around a fancy, leather-bound notebook. The response to his question about what it was came back, “That's my portfolio.”
“You mean your portfolio for the contest?”
“No, my portfolio.”
“You mean, your father's portfolio?”
“Well, that's interesting, can I look at it?”
He looked over the thing and saw the bottom line on the last page had a dollar sign and the figure “6” followed by six zeros!
It dawned on him that his play money contest didn't hold much meaning for his students.
He asked the kid, “How did you get the money?”
“From my Grandpa.”
It was at that precise moment that THE question required an answer for the second time. He considered his options, spent a good deal of time thinking, and concluded it would be a challenge to teach his specialty, English literature, to kids in one of the poorest, most “backward” and least populated areas of our nation. It would boost the challenge if English was their second language. Time, research, and contact with various school boards found the answer--a school on an Indian reservation. He signed a contract and went to work—work which doesn't bring him to ask the questions anymore, at all, ever.
So, he went from one extreme to the other. From teaching rich kids at a fancy school with a culture of consumption to teaching mostly Indian kids, many of whom have English as a second language, whose legacy from Grandpa is a rich culture but no money, and who have not been introduced to any rigorous academic subjects in their lives. He's in heaven!
There are few things that get Mr. Smith's eyes to sparkle. Black powder guns and hunting do it and he'll talk about old things and has great respect for history and peoples, and real football (we call it soccer). But nothing compares to the excitement in his voice and eyes as he talks about getting kids to tune in to the wonderful world of ideas, love, romance, sex, abuse, and all other subjects in literature. He delights in describing how each student is liable to respond to a different aspect of the field and his job is to find the key for each. He is eloquent in describing his work (it isn't a job). He explains that teaching does not consist so much of transferring knowledge as in finding exactly what it is that interests a child in literature. When he gets into the subject the tone of his voice goes up about two notes as he described this kid responded to love and that one to adventure and another to history. He maintains that his senior honors course is more rigorous and difficult that the freshmen English classes he taught while in graduate school. He finds other tools. One motivator he holds out to them is that most any school in the country will offer them a full scholarship because of their heritage. He's most proud when a students heads to an Ivy League campus and will recite the students and schools to which they've gone.
It's a sad commentary on education that never until college did a teacher of that level stand up in the front of a class of mine.