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Those Who Can, Teach – 9/21/2014

Let me tell you a little bit about Dave Roche. Dave Roche is a punk rock guy. He belongs to the particular variety of punk called ‘straight-edge,’ which means that he doesn’t drink and doesn’t smoke and doesn’t eat meat. The sort of loud, aggressive music that he likes to sing along with and dance to and create himself is socially-conscious, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist. Dave spent most of his 20s going to shows in grimy clubs and sometimes performing in them. He hitchhiked between cities, made guerilla street art, and rummaged strategically in promising dumpsters. You may hear ‘punk,’ and find none of that terribly surprising. What may surprise you is that Dave supported himself through much of that time by working as a public school substitute teacher, mainly as an aid in special ed classrooms.

In his book, On Subbing, Dave records many of his teaching experiences. True to the punk ethic that demands unvarnished truth, many of his stories and anecdotes aren’t pretty. When a student shouts an expletive at him, he records the quote verbatim. When a senior teacher does something cruel, or thoughtless, or outright racist, he prints that, too. His warnings about the job are plain and direct: “[W]hen you sub, especially at a middle school, you have to give the kids as little to make fun of you about as possible. You have to double, maybe triple check your fly, bring some mints, and make sure your shirt is buttoned properly.”

But Dave also clearly enjoys many of the children he works with: a boy who wants to spend recess talking about pets, but doesn’t like monkeys; a girl who remembers him from his last job in her class, and wants him to read the same book to her again. Dave has little tolerance for any teacher or administrators who don’t seem to respect the kids, saying, “My job would be so much better if I didn’t have to deal with all these adults.” Still, he cares about the places where he works and the job that he and the people he works with are trying to do. One particularly hard-up school suffers from a lack of the most basic supplies, including markers and paper. So Dave asks his friends to gather enough materials to last through the end of the school year and leaves them in a pile in the staff room. His anonymous note to the faculty doesn’t mention that all the items were shoplifted.

As a substitute, Dave has very little control over where he is sent and what he is told to do – sometimes he can’t actually do the work at all. In one case he is sent to substitute for the school librarian for a whole week, but because he doesn’t have a password for the computer, he can’t actually use the system to check books in and out. Resorting to writing down the names of students and the books he checks out to them, he wiles away the mostly-empty hours in the library by reading and introducing one of the student volunteers, already a dedicated punk fan, to new and less mainstream bands. Dave begins to lay out a curriculum of sorts, laying out the albums he’ll introduce each day in his head. Sadly his punk-rock tutorial is cut short when the school realizes it can’t afford to pay him through the end of the week.

I begin with this collage from Dave Roche’s stories of teaching to underline two related points. The first is that teaching is a job, it is a role, and it is a vocation, but it is not something that can only be done in one sort of way by one sort of person. Dave Roche spent his nights dancing in noisy bars and sleeping on couches, but that didn’t make him any less determined to do what he could to help the kids in his classes learn something. And the second point is that if you are determined to teach – to share what you know, and help others to grow in their own understanding – then you will find ways to teach no matter the circumstance. Stuck behind a desk unable to function in the role of librarian, Dave still managed to find one student to teach with his improvised class on the essentials of punk rock.

Today, my message is on the importance of teaching – not only to children or even only to people, but to the world itself. This is the first sermon in a series of three – the remaining pieces will come later in the fall – derived from a famous saying from the Jewish tradition. In the Pirkei Avot – literally the ‘Sayings of the Fathers,’ a collection of wisdom from the ancient rabbis – it is recounted that Simeon the Just, a high priest of the temple in Jerusalem, was known to say, “On three things the world is sustained: Torah, avodah, and gemilut chasadim. Gemilut chasadim means acts of loving kindness; avodah means literally work or service and in this case the religious sort: worship and prayer. These will get their due in October and November, but for today, our word is Torah.

You may already know that the Torah is the foundational scripture of the Jewish people, what are sometimes called the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. A narrative that begins with the two creation stories of Genesis and proceeds through the call of Abraham and the laughter of Sarah, to the enslavement of the children of Israel in Egypt, the prophecy of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, the receipt of the Torah itself and the covenant between the Jewish people and their G-d at Mount Sinai, and their wandering journey through the desert to the border of the Promised Land. Torah is a word that usually goes untranslated, but technically it means instruction or teaching. Rabbi Stephen Chester, who was the first teacher I studied Torah with in an ongoing way, described the Torah as, “the record of the Jewish people, from Sinai until now.” The literal record in the words themselves stops thousands of years ago, but Rabbi Chester was alluding to a precious understanding in Judaism that the Torah continues to speak, through the same stories and between the words themselves, again and again in every age. The tradition holds that all of the continuing discussion and debate around the book and its meaning is actually part of the Torah, also divine in its origin and so equally holy.

The lovely music our choir has offered this morning comes from Jewish liturgy, specifically the songs and tunes appropriate to Rosh Hashanah, the festival of the New Year which begins at sundown this coming Wednesday. The most upbeat of those pieces was a song sung for rejoicing with the Torah: during one portion of the Jewish worship service, one or more large, carefully inscribed scrolls bearing the full Hebrew text of the Torah is carried throughout the sanctuary. A parade breaks out, people approach the heavy, beautifully decorated text to touch it gently and to kiss it, all before it is taken back to the front to be opened and read. It’s a visual, auditory, and physical expression of how precious the words of the teaching are to the community.

So Simeon the Just may have meant that the world is sustained specifically by this Torah, but if I suggest that existence depends on teaching more broadly, that won’t just be coming from my Unitarian Universalist tendency to, well, universalize. This interpretation exists within Judaism as well: that the exchange of teaching and learning has an essential and mystical role in maintaining the world we share.

There is a story of the Baal Shem Tov, the foremost leader of the Chasidic movement in Judaism which began 300 years ago. The Baal Shem Tov was a Rabbi – a title which, you may recall, means ‘teacher’ – of great renown and the wondrous tales of his life often ascribe to him miraculous powers. But in this story, he had lost them all. His miracle-working had ceased. He could recall none of his learning, not one drop of his great wisdom. By power beyond his control, every word of Torah had fled from his mind and he had been banished far from home. He found himself stranded on a far-away island, with only one of his students for company, equally rid of all knowledge and capability. Despair at his predicament began to set in, then hunger and exhaustion. In a final calamity, the two men were captured by pirates, and faced the final loss of their lives.

In one last bid to save their lives, the Baal Shem Tov asked his student, “Can you remember nothing that I taught you? Not one story, not one prayer?”

“No, master; nothing.” Their captors closing in, the student thought for another moment and then said, “I suppose I can remember one thing, but it is nothing at all.”

“Whatever you can remember is more than I can recall. Whatever it is, no matter how meager or small, recite it now!”

All that the student could bring to mind, the only teaching from his master which still remained with him, were the letters of the alephbet – the Hebrew equivalent of the alphabet. Dutifully, but with little hope, the student closed his eyes and began to recite, “Aleph. Bet. Gimmel. Dalet. Hei.” As he spoke, the image of the pirates began to fade. By the time he reached mem, the island itself had begun to shimmer like the ending of a dream, and when he pronounced the last letter, tav, he and the Baal Shem Tov found themselves at home once more, safe and unharmed, their memories restored.[i]

The magic of the story points to a very real magic in the relationship between teacher and student. To learn something – anything – from someone is to take a part of them into you. It is a profoundly intimate thing, even when we do not want it to be, even when the learning is unplanned or unintended. Our Unitarian ancestor Ralph Waldo Emerson said that, “The man may teach by doing, and not otherwise. If he can communicate himself, he can teach, but not by words. He teaches who gives, and he learns who receives. There is no teaching until the pupil is brought into the same state or principle in which you are; a transfusion takes place; he is you, and you are he; then is a teaching; and by no unfriendly chance or bad company can he ever quite lose the benefit.” The words have Emerson’s trademark – standards so high and grand that it’s hard to think of anyone approaching them, yet they still ring true. To learn is to be transformed, whether your learning is in astrophysics or air conditioning repair or needle point: it means being changed from the person who did not know, to the person who knows. Such transformation connects us irreversibly to our teachers.

I’ve had the benefit of many great scholars and educators in my life, but some of my most important teachers and moments of learning have come by at odd hours and with no particular warning. One of those moments that haunts me in a way that I am still learning from happened in summer camp, when I was around 13. Being the product of a liberal church and liberal household did not do anything special to make me good – though there was a time when I thought that it did. Rather, I had to learn, still have to learn, again and again, the ways in which I have failed my own ideals, and the way back towards the person I aspire to be. In this particular moment from my childhood, I was talking with some other young men around a campfire. I repeated a joke I had seen someone else deliver on television, passing it off as my own – that was something I did a lot of in middle school, when I was trying to figure out what cool was.

I and the other boys laughed. One of the female counselors, sitting within earshot, did not. She called me by name, and looked me in the face, and told me plain, “That was a really sexist joke.” She was right, it was. It was also homophobic, but maybe she didn’t think that would get my attention in the same way. Nothing more was said. I cannot pretend that I was entirely changed in that one moment, and that I never said anything ignorant or hurtful or of which I am ashamed, ever again. But every time that I have, or have been tempted to, because I want to be liked, or to fit in, or get a laugh, I think of her face. She taught me that some things aren’t funny, whether people laugh at them or not.

When I was in seminary, one of my professors, who was and is a Roman Catholic woman religious – so, colloquially, a nun – taught me one of the most important truths I know about ministry. “An action,” she said, “can only be identified as ministry by the person who receives it. We can’t know when we are and are not doing ministry, only when others are doing ministry for us.” I would say that exactly the same holds true for teaching, since about 80% of the time, being a minister means being a teacher who is in over their head and trying to cover for it gracefully.

Augustine of Hippo, whose own work has had so much influence on teachers and students of religion and philosophy for 1600 years, was himself rather wary of reliance on teachers directly. His instruction was that people should seek to learn the truth, which might align with the thoughts and lessons of their teachers only sometimes or not at all. Augustine echoed the Gospel According to Matthew in declaring that, “[We] should not call anyone on earth teacher, since there is one in heaven Who is the Teacher of all.”[ii] But what seems like a high and exalted position for God melts quickly into something very ambiguous. Even if its true origin is somehow divine, all information has to come to us more immediately from somewhere: a person, a book, a work of art, even just a flash of synapses in the brain. The frequently-spontaneous, imperfect work of trying to teach here on earth continues. In fact, the process of passing thought from one mind to another, feeling from one heart to another, is the means by which all art, culture, language and religion are transmitted and sustained. The practice of teaching is what makes it possible for everything about the human experience, and the means by which we perceive and interpret our world, to grow and endure.

The organized system for educating children in this country which is universal, public, secular, and free was not any of these things in its beginning. The shift happened gradually. The Unitarian reformer Horace Mann is often credited with helping to push the nation’s schools towards graded classes with professional teachers, away from the one-room schoolhouse model. In the ongoing project of educational reform, two of the leading groups championing public schooling have historically been the Jews and the Unitarian Universalists. We both place a strong emphasis on study and learning as a spiritual practice, and we both have experience as marginal groups with unpopular ideas – so a system of education that benefits everyone without favoring the dominant religion or ideology is in our immediate interest.

Each of us has something to teach; many of us quite a bit more than that. While some few brave souls among us may take their place in the classroom, and some more blessed spirits in our number may play a role in our Sunday School, most of us teach, most of the time, with our lives. Not by our words, so much as how we say them. Not by our grand gestures, but by the incidents we can neither plan nor predict. Not all of us are called to be educators, but in this sense all of us are called to teach: to be who we are loudly enough to be heard. To share what we know in the ways that we can, to help transform the each other, bit by bit, from people who do not know to people who understand. Teaching, in this sense, is not only for us: so frightful and so great is the power of humankind in our age that the present and future of the earth itself rests in our hands. The world, quite literally, depends, on what we teach to each other.

[i] This story appears in Elie Wiesel’s Souls on Fire.

[ii] In this passage from his, De Magistro, Augustine is pointing to Matthew 23:10-11.


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