February 10, 2009: A teachable moment

Like Dickens, who walked the streets of London twenty miles a day, walking though my beloved community is integral to my writing process. This morning, delighted that the recent thaw meant I could actually stride entire blocks along Somerville’s Summer Street without watching out for ice,  I was mentally revising yesterday’s work and plotting  today’s writing when a voice behind me shouted “El-lah, el-lah.” (At least that’s what I thought I’d heard.) I kept walking. “El-lah, el-lah;” this time more loudly and emphatically. I turned around. An older woman, Haitian perhaps, wearing school crossing guard gear and carrying two empty cardboard cartons, pointed to my purple gloves which had—again!—fallen out of my coat pocket. (These gloves have the worst karma; they’re constantly almost lost. One time they fell onto a busy street. When I picked them up, they reeked of cat piss. How is that even possible?)

Now I’d already walked past this woman just as she’d been emptying those two cartons by tossing their contents into the street. Not cool. And, I must say, I was a little disturbed that a crossing guard’s command of English to be so minimal that she couldn’t shout, “Hey! Lady! You dropped your gloves!” (Again.) What if, God forbid, she had to warn a child of imminent danger? Huh?

So, I’m afraid, I was less than gracious when I picked up my gloves. I did not smile nor reward her with fulsome praise. Instead, I sort of glared at her, then muttered, “Thanks.” And kept walking.

Not half a block later, that same thinking-while-I walk process kicked right in, this time about what had just happened. Almost immediately, I realized several things:

1. My ungracious behavior very easily could have been explained by this older woman of color as racist. How easily my annoyance could be understood simply in black-white terms! She couldn’t have known how upsetting her trash-tossing had been to me. (Just writing this, I want to shake my own shoulders and shout, “Get over yourself!”)

2. “Maybe I should have used that moment to teach her a little English?” I wondered. Did I just blow a teachable moment? (And, yes, “The Class,” a French movie about teaching and race and blown teachable moments has been very much on my mind lately.)

“Whoa, girl,” another and wiser voice counseled. Teachable moments only work in teaching/learning settings. That woman had not signed up for your on-Summer-Street-on-a Tuesday-morning tutorial. No matter how warmly and kindly and lovingly  you’d instructed her: “Say ‘Excuse me!’ ” she would have, no doubt, decided you were no better than those other “English only” jerks. AND a racist to boot.

So. Not a teachable moment for her, apparently, but maybe a teachable moment for moi? One of the many ways Quakers talk about God, Spirit, etc, etc, is the Inward Teacher. Sometimes, like this morning, when I’m so caught up with my supreme righteousness that I am unable to be civil, i.e. to politely say “Thank you” and smile, I apparently need a Kindergarten-level Inward Teacher!

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  1. I very much enjoyed the Teachable Moments entry. I like that you seem to have taken the Somerville Journal “time” and turned it into the more overtly Quaker blog.

  2. This is such a great story about the process of learning what is going on inside oneself by letting that voice (several voices in your case) have its say. There’s more that I wish I could learn here — the experience of that possibly-Haitian woman. What was she trying to yell? What was the meaning to her of her throwing her trash into the street (just a natural thing to do? something vaguely wrong and embarrassing, but convenient?)? What’s her history, anyway (does she have children in Haiti she’s supporting? how does she view her life? what are the prospects for change in her life?)? Learning any of that, of course, would be a big, BIG job, but would be immensely interesting and would put the entire incident in a different light. Maybe in the book after this one, you could figure out everything that was happening.

  3. Very interesting story, and well written. There always seem to be a race issue, but I tend to ignore that and simply see humans. If this woman understood how important this slippery glove is,she “would” understand that there are trash men to haul the trash away every week, and not ruin the surrounding that is shared by everyone around her. Send a message then see if she understood…….

    You kept a tight lip though and went about your mental surfing of the world wide. I would have done the same depending on my mood.

    Hmmmm, what I would do is find out her address and send a nice message, type the message in English then go to babelfish.com and translate to creole and print.

    (smiling gently) You type the way you speak, “Whoa girl.” We are all teachers and you are always teaching. I bet you will see this soul again………

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