I may be flouting the bacon gods of the Internet but as an atheist, I rarely care what the gods think… so this note begins.
I became a vegetarian in my last year of art school. I remember my last meat meal. Tony Roma’s in Edmonton offered the meat platter with a rack of lamb, a steak, pork chops and chicken wings. It was offered up as an Abrahamic type sacrifice, steaming and barbequed, dripping in its succulent seduction. I ate the whole thing.
I loved meat. I liked the taste of my grandfather’s special steaks, a turkey at holidays, and chicken wings at the farm on a hot summer night. Sixteen years later I still have a Pavlov-type response when I smell steaks grilling. Meat tastes good, but I made a mindful choice to not eat it again.
So, what does this have to do with teaching? I’m getting there, but it’s a journey.
Militancy soon followed conversion. I would preach at people, got stickers that proclaimed, “Meats no Treat for those you Eat!!” and sticker bombed windows of restaurants. I avoided dinner with ‘meatheads’ and told them off when they made their menu choices. I would freak if someone used the same knife to cut a ham sandwich and then cut mine. Basically, I was a dick.
But several similar events began to alter my consciousness. I was living in a van with my boyfriend and dog and we were playing at being ridiculous hippies on our way to Mexico to beach bum for few months. We hadn’t showered for days (plural) and were sitting in a park in the Yucca Valley. He was playing a guitar and I was drawing. A woman approached us, who happened to have a roly-poly, lumpy, old, yellow lab that looked exactly like our dog. She was a Japanese immigrant and explained that she had made a similar trip with her partner when they were young and first came to the USA. She invited us to stay the night at her home. She brought us in, washed our dirty clothes, let us shower, unhappily watched Bush get re-elected, and then cooked us dinner. She made chicken stir-fry and then painstakingly picked out the chicken bits so that I could have a ‘vegetarian’ meal.
In that moment, a second, a flash, I knew that I had a responsibility for gratefulness to this woman who had given us everything for nothing. I knew my beliefs were not in competition with her kindness. I said thank you, and I ate my chicken infused vegetables.
But it was more than just one thing that changed my character. Traveling through India in the mountains near Dharamshala my partner and I got lost. A local milk merchant, who hiked the seven, steep and treacherous mountain miles to and from town each day, found us and offered to take us in for the night. We arrived to a small; goat filled village with many children in dirty clothes, some without shoes, but excited to see me, a redhead giant. The merchant’s wife cooked over a small open-pit fire in the mud home. She made us hot chai and a simple stew of potatoes and mystery content. After dinner, we sat while the children pawed at my hair and the milk merchant told us stories about their life in the mountains. At night, they gave us their only two rope beds to sleep in, complete with flea-infested horsehair blankets. The rest of the family huddled on the floor together. In the morning, despite my welt-covered body and tired, flea tormented brain- I was humbled and grateful. It was obvious that this family had nothing to offer, but offered everything to us.
So it progressed, from conversion to militancy to compassion. I do my best to model that I can be meat free, healthy and balanced. I never try to convert. I never preach, I never judge. I go for BBQs at people's houses and bring my own veggie-burgers, when my friends offer me turkey at Thanksgiving I simply say, no thanks. I live by example. And probably not surprisingly, I have had some very good friends over the years turn vegetarian.
But again, what does this have to do with teaching?
For my teaching I take lessons from my practice as a vegetarian. Modeling, and leading by example are a part of my teaching philosophy. I work to engender an environment where learners feel safe and happy. But really, this is just good teaching practice and not what I take from being meat-free.
Teaching is an imperfect journey. I often feel like I fail, I am too short, too impatient, too preachy, too ‘teachy’. Sometimes I forget that humans are just animals, doing animal things- and children are no exception, they are individuals, prone to vacillating emotions and non-parallel thoughts. They can be irrational and motivated only by where they happen to be in their cognitive development. In those moments, when I am hard on myself for my failures, I remind myself that I am mindfully compassionate each time I choose not to eat meat. That I have been successful in that path for more than a decade, and it gives me strength, that given the same mindfulness it is possible for me to be a better, kinder, more patient teacher.
I work to find a way to take time from the schedule, to slowdown from the race to fulfill benchmarks and paperwork, to---hold---in the moments where I become the learner and my students the teachers. I strive to consistently view my students with compassion and kindness. To understand that they are giving as much as they can at each moment, and to be grateful for whom I become in their presence.
Perhaps now I read through this, it is less about compassion and more about trust. The woman in the Yucca Valley trusted strangers in her home, as we trusted her to not chop us into garden mulch. The milk merchant trusted us with his children and even enough to sleep in his bed- just as we trusted that he had good intentions at heart. In each instance, I put aside my beliefs to place trust in another person.
Yes, that’s the lesson. When we are able to transcend our beliefs and place trust in others, we are able to look at them through a different lens. And when we peer through this lens we make room to develop compassion for all living things.