Circle of Light

My Language Classroom

My Language Classroom

“What does everyone want in life? To not be alone.” Stephen Colbert

In a recent collection of short videos about his Catholic Faith, Stephen Colbert made the observation at the beginning of this post, referring to his show, The Colbert Report. (“Stephen Colbert Opens Up About His Devout Christian Faith, Islam, Pope Francis, and More” by Barbie Latza Nadeau, 9-9-15, The Daily Beast). The entire collection of videos is worth watching because Colbert’s thinking and communication are both so clear, but this one line in particular stayed with me and I’m still processing days after watching it; the idea resonates with me because I’ve already been seeing this thread of a theme throughout my life as I reflect back and back, even to childhood.

One of my favorite ways to spend time is listening to or watching stand up comics and my favorite comedians are those who include everyone in the audience in their jokes: Ellen Degeneres, Mike Birbiglia, The Smothers Brothers, Carol Burnett, Bob Newhart, Victor Borge. After an informal analysis (i.e.: watching hours of Youtube sketches, to my delight), I’ve determined that these folks tend(ed) to draw the audience into their story, as if into their own family, so that the audience feels a solidarity with them by the end of the routine. We feel as if we have a new friend and if we met one of these comics on the street, we’d greet each other with a hug or a handshake. These comics don’t leave us alone, outside of their circle of light and humor which they’ve created, but draw us in with them. This is what makes a great comic, I think. I want to be part of their happiness.

On a larger scale, I agree with Colbert: what any of us want is a place to belong, a family, a village. It is in this circle that we feel secure in our own bodies and spirit, as if we can be ourselves without fear of persecution. The art is to create this “family” without causing others to feel persecuted or left out, which is an easy way to create a group–putting up a boundary or wall of some kind to demarcate the differences involved.

Growing up as the youngest of three sisters provided many opportunities for any one of us to have hurt feelings throughout our childhood years. One vivid and early memory I have related to this was on a summer day in my Grandma’s back yard, near the swing set (which had no swings–we had ingeniously converted it to a large tent by throwing table cloths and bed spreads over it). My memory, like a silent movie, includes my siblings and neighbor boys running off to the next adventure without me, and being left alone, I stand there wailing, immobilized by the feeling of being left out of the group. But then one of the boys returned to reassure me that I could join them, I just needed to hurry up and run with him. I might have been 6 or 7 at the time, I’m not really sure.

Maybe spending my life as a teacher has taught me more about this idea of the circle of light I’m thinking of because in my classrooms, the highest goal of all for me was to create a kind community; this was of utmost importance in order for learning to happen. I still know this to be true as I teach adults in a second language setting. I’ve learned to find what we have in common before teaching the hardest concepts.

I have read and re-read Sharon Salzberg’s book, The Force of Kindness, which I stumbled upon at the city library’s 50 cent book store. In Chapter Four, entitled “How We See the World”, she says:

If we are willing to take a risk anyway, and consciously practice kindness, we see that, unlike the world’s message, which is ‘buy more,’ ‘compete more strongly,’ ‘It’s a dog eat dog world,’ a much more refined happiness comes from feeling joined, from a sense of belonging–both to this life, and to one another. We need to hone our own sense of purpose. We need to understand what will actually allow happiness beyond acquisition, what will help us realize happiness more steadfast than any temporary pleasure of fleeting triumph.

Salzburg also tells a story in the same chapter about a woman she overheard on a New York Street saying, “I was sick all winter,” and when Salzburg turned around, she witnessed this woman handing a street person some money. The woman said, “I had pneumonia, and every time I started to get better I’d have a relapse. Now I am finally getting better, and I just wanted to share the joy.”

Sharing the joy is including others in a circle of light too, and it’s what I aspire to every day of my life. There are so many days that I know I have failed in this aspiration, but I want to keep trying. I hope to continue my study of comics in the hope that their wisdom infuses my life. I think Colbert has it nailed when he said: “What does everyone want in life? To not be alone.”

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Story

Story Water
A story is like water
That you heat for your bath.
It takes messages between the fire and your skin. It lets them meet,
and it cleans you!

Very few can sit down
in the middle of the fire itself,
like a salamander, or Abraham.
We need intermediaries.

A feeling of fullness comes,
but usually it takes some bread
to bring it.

Beauty surrounds us,
but usually we need to be walking
in a garden to know it.

The body itself is a screen
to shield and partially reveal
the light that’s blazing
inside your presence.

Water, stories, the body,
all the things we do, are mediums
that hide and show what’s hidden.

Study them,
and enjoy this being washed
with a secret we sometimes know,
and then not.

– by Jelaluddin Rumi, taken from The Essential Rumi by Coleman Barks

When I left my 17 year-long teaching experience of the public schools, I realized a part of my problem was that I had experienced a closing off of who I am: someone who believes in God. Some at my school were vocal about those who believed in God, or who went to church, or who talked about Christ. . . they had derogatory names for us. Some even put down anyone who had ever attended a Christian school. So I grew accustomed to closing the door to that part of my life while I was at work.

Then I began teaching at my current school: a small private school to prepare adult students for the American University experience. My first class included five students–one from Samoa, two from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one from Ethiopia and one from Brazil. In a discussion about persuasive essays and how to approach them, I mentioned hearing the Socratic Debate at Oregon State University. The topic was, “Is there a God and does it matter?” After talking for awhile amongst themselves, one student asked me, “Teacher, do you believe there is a god?”

I looked tentatively at them and said, “Hmmm, I’m not sure I can tell you.” When they asked me why not, I explained that in a public school setting it’s not a topic we can talk about because we want everyone to feel included. They all agreed they thought I was able to at this school. A wonderful moment of freedom and relief followed after I said, “Yes I do.” The students nodded and we moved on. A cloud lifted, a weight that I had been carrying for a very long time was suddenly not there. These students accepted me as a believer in god, religion had nothing to do with it. Two of these students follow Islam’s teaching, two are Mormon and one an Orthodox Christian. I felt welcomed by them in a way I hadn’t ever before.

After this experience, our class discussed many different topics and views, including their wonderful question: why are there so many different Christian churches teacher?” This question prompted a lot of interior dialogue for me. I answered their question at the time by saying just a few sentences about his each denomination holds slightly different views on certain ideas but that they are united by Christ.

Then I wondered if the different Christian groups are just reflections of preferences in worship practices which then led me to wonder: just what is the unifying message? For a long time before this, I thought I knew the answer but to be honest, recent politics in the larger church has me currently wondering whether we are united by a whole Christ, or just see different parts of him. Right now my faith in many things is shattered, including God, in a way it never has been before. My belief in a higher power remains strong, but what I thought I understood about God is constantly shifting.

The TED Talk entitled, “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shows how one individual’s world can be shaped (or misshapen) by a narrow view of the world or any one particular idea. Chimamanda’s own view of the world was broadened by hearing and knowing different views, especially in literature. I feel as if by teaching English to my incredible students my view of God has been strengthened and broadened. My students have given me multiple stories about God instead of my single story.