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What a teacher learns from students

B Y  D E N N I S  M .  M A R T I N

Dennis M. Martin Editor’s Note: The December 1998 Commencement Ceremony address was given by Dennis M. Martin, associate professor of English at PLU since 1976. The following talk was so inspiring, we decided to reprint it here in Scene. We hope you enjoy it as much as the participants did!
      It was just thirty-five years ago that I went to my own graduation, and I remember the graduation speaker very well. He started by telling us that he had just the previous week given this talk to a Rotary club and so if, from time to time, he mentioned a Rotary club, we were to understand that he was referring to us, the graduates. My hope today is that I will be a tiny bit better graduation speaker than he was; but in fact you notice that I still remember him all these years later. I can't help but wonder whether thirty-five years from now any one of you will remember what I am about to say.
      The title I've given my brief talk is: What a Teacher Learns from Students.
      One of our best modern writers, Hannah Arendt, said about college that it was the place where you decided whether you loved the world enough to take responsibility for it. I like that way of putting it. She saw that underneath all the other specific choices you will have to make during your life—choices about jobs, and relationships, and about such virtues as honesty and integrity—lies what is perhaps the bigger question, whether you will choose this world as your place, and by choosing it make yourself author of it and of its future.
      Another of our best writers, the poet W. C. Williams, once wondered why so many people seem to treat the earth as though it were, in his words, "an excrement of some sky." He didn't just mean that people throw litter around in the world, though of course they do; he meant that when he looked around he saw that people simply didn't seem to love the world, they didn't especially treat it as if it were their home.
      Please allow me, then, for just a moment to speak of my affection for the earth and trees on this hillside in Parkland, Washington, where your education has taken place. The land was here long before you and I were, before the first people walked along its slope and before homesteaders from Europe laid claim to it. I like to imagine that people wearing clothes made of animal skins built their campfires on rocky patches of this land and in my imagination I see people wearing homespun clothes wading across the creek flowing at the base of the hill, a creek filled with spawning salmon.
      It was for a later generation to plant the honey locust trees whose yellow leaves canopy red square in October and the skyscraping firs that you have seen out your windows when you looked up from studying or eating pizza. It's the world right here around you that is always the hardest to see; I think you will often find that to be true in your life both of the places and of the people closest around you.
      I have spent most of the thirty-five years since my graduation as a teacher and I have sometimes been tired. Teaching is exhausting work and I have at times felt, like Hamlet, "How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/ [are] to me all the uses of the world." But my students have rallied me and together we have read quite a few books and been involved in a lot of serious conversations. I'm going to try to tell you in the next ten minutes what they have helped me to learn about life; among all the new ideas and feelings that I might talk about, I have chosen just eight to mention here. I am going to list them by number so you will always know how close I am to the end of my talk.
      I'll not in every case repeat the point that I learned this from one or more of my students; please take it for granted that you and the students who came here before you taught me a great deal of what I know.
      1. I've learned that everyone in the world is better than I am at something. The first time this occurred to me was when I was lying on the weight-lifting bench in the Names fitness Center and noticed the young student on the bench next to me, who weighed about half what I did, bench pressing twice as much weight as I was. She just looked over and smiled. And I realized that this was a person who just the day before had earned a "C" grade on a paper for my course.
      The best lesson I ever learned in this respect was when I took two years of French courses here at PLU while I was teaching my regular literature courses. As a student in the French courses, I saw other students regularly beat my scores on tests and papers. And these were the same students who seemed to be struggling to understand the material in my class where I was an expert.
      When I traveled abroad with PLU student groups I always counted on my students to help me with things they knew more about than I did, like navigating our way through the London Underground or appreciating the nuances of a French perfume museum. If you are just around another person for a while, no matter who they are, you will learn what it is they are much better at than you are and what they can teach you..
      2. I've learned from listening to my students that your best friends are likely to be the ones you share your most difficult times with. Anyone who stays your friend when you don't have the time and energy to make yourself look good is a true friend. People who know you only from your happy times don't know much about you.
      And I've learned that the best way in the world to make a friend is to ask someone to do you a favor. I'm always flattered when someone asks me to do a favor because it shows me that person trusts me ,trusts that I will not take advantage of his or her being in my debt. On the other hand, it isn't always doing people a favor that makes a person into a friend; try to remember that putting yourself in debt to another person is a way of having confidence in them. Being that kind of good friend to someone often requires from you far more courage than you might expect. Perhaps that's why a true friend is so valuable to us.
      3. I've learned to stay curious about the world and taken the example of my student's curiosity to think about most everything I see. We all know how curious and strange something like quantum mechanics can be or how intriguing far away places with strange sounding names can seem. But how about the many small curiosities right around you? Don't you wonder when you stand on the corner waiting for the light to change whether it makes any difference if you bang the button just once or many times? Isn't it funny how those little personal air-jets above your seat on airplanes are just like the engines holding the plane up; and are you sure they aren't?
"I've learned to stay curious about the world and have taken the example of my students' curiousity to think about most everything I see."
What could be more satisfying than the feel of a well-made tool in your hand? Isn't it interesting how when you point to your dog's favorite toy she comes over and looks at the end of your finger as though the toy were there instead of where it is?
      And there are big things I've learned to be curious about too. When you stand out under a star-filled summer sky, remember that you are looking at both space and time, because some of what you are looking at, even with your naked eye, happened ten million years ago. If you all stay curious about the diseases that plague humankind, maybe one of you will find new answers to old questions. Stay curious about why war persists and why so many of our fellow humans go to bed hungry every night.
      4. I've learned that after you tell other people what you think, it's a good idea to ask them what they think. People who ask good questions are often more respected and more productive than people who say a lot of smart things. And after you ask a question listen to the answer. Don't forget that listening is different from waiting for the other person to stop talking so that you can begin again. The ideas that other people have are not always great ideas, but there is almost always something in them that you should know. Asking others what they think is a way to respect the world and the people outside yourself.
      5. I've learned that we often have the feeling that we have to pretend to be who we really are. You have to let people know that you are having the thoughts and feelings you are. Don't forget people are not transparent; they are solid bodies that must act in the world to be knowable. Remember old Ben Franklin's sage advice that we have to not only be virtuous but we have to be seen to be virtuous. There is nothing at all hypocritical in this advice; it is common sense that you have to "prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet," as T.S. Eliot says .
      Sometime in your life you will be given the advice that you should "act naturally." It's good advice but it's hard advice to follow. You can be natural, but then you are more likely to act distracted and uninterested. Or you can put on an act, but then you seem like a phony. The trick is to learn how to act naturally, to pretend to be who you are.
      6. You will have to take my word for this one because rarely will anyone be brave enough to tell you they feel this way. But my students have told me this and it is true. Everyone will want to be you when you are in love. Of all the ways you will try to find happiness and make yourself the apple of your friend's eyes, nothing really works better than this. I don't mean that people will all admire you if you are gushy and sentimental. Instead I mean that when people see you exchange a smile or touch the sleeve of a sweater or even just look at each other in the way that reveals how real your feelings are, then they will know you are a great success.
      7. I've learned to always try to find room for beauty in my life, even if it is something as small as a single flower on the desk or a favorite image on the wall. This one is harder than it sounds. You will find out who you are by throwing yourself into your work, if you are lucky, but that same work can devour your time and energy like an insatiable animal. In your work you will be an instrument and there is joy in being used well; but remember that you are always more than an instrument. There is a part of you that needs to be fed as well as to feed. Remember that the injunction is to love your neighbor as yourself, not instead of yourself.
      Make time for art and music in your life, and for beautiful language. In the arts you will hear and see that others have felt what you have felt, and because of that you will feel much less alone. And know that you will find beauty later in your life that you did not see earlier because it takes time to let some things teach us how to find them beautiful.
      8. We all must learn how to live with a broken heart. I don't have to tell you what I mean by that because most of you—all but a lucky few- have already had your hearts broken by another person, by a deep disappointment, by the loss of someone you cared about, worst of all of course when you have broken your own heart. The question is not whether this will happen to us, only when. You will learn if you have not already learned that you can live, that you do live, even though the hurt can be so bad that you cannot believe it will ever end. Perhaps we are lucky that life hurts us as often as it does, because then it teaches us that we do survive.
      Having a broken heart will give you insights into life that you did not have before, not the shallow everyday life, but the deep parts of life, the mysteries that make life so hard to understand but, at the same time, so interesting.
      But know that living with a broken heart is not the same as living with a whole heart that has yet to be broken. Life truly is a tragedy in the very best sense of the word. I mean that we are human and thus we will fail but in falling we might help all of humanity find its way forward. It is always hard- impossible really- to see all the way to the end of this journey our life, but it is almost always possible to see what the next step is that will take us forward.       In the toughest times, remember that being broken hearted we need to be loved, and that need for love is a most precious, most human need. And in the times of joy do find a few moments to simply enjoy what you do have.
      I started my talk by saying that college was the place where you decided whether you loved the world enough to take responsibility for it. In closing I ask you now to think about how each one of you will answer that question to yourself.
      Thank you and thank you especially to our students who have also been our teachers.
     

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