My job as a teacher is one that opens me up in extraordinary ways. If I listen closely and pay attention, every day there is a new insight that comes and teaches me in profound ways. Yesterday was one of those days.
One of my students lost her mother. A week ago, the child was in school, online at home and she went to check in on her after my class, and she saw that her mother had passed away. How traumatic for a fifteen-year old to be the one to find your mother dead in bed. She has no father, as he passed away a few years ago. She is the only child. Her mother was her be all, end all. The rest of her family of cousins is six hours away in Chicago. The only world she knows for the most part is here in Cleveland. Remarkably, she was in class this day. She told me the first few days were tough, but she’s hanging in there.
I was running an online exercise developed by master teacher Tom Cendejas that was a scavenger hunt. The students had to find artifacts in their houses that relate to the phrase. For example, “Find something that relates to a truth you hold in your heart that you believe.” “Find an object that you feel best describes your feelings for a friend.” This lesson is a fun way to help students identify their feelings with their experiences in life through objects. It also gives them a chance to get away from the computer. They see the symbols of things and how they relate to their lives in poetic ways.
I thought this may be too deep for the student who lost her mother. I told her that I want to help her and take it slow. I told her to “think about a friend or friends and what they mean to you. Think about people who love you and do good things for you.” I told her to take a few minutes to write about it. She clearly couldn’t participate in this exercise because she was still sitting with her grief, and I wanted to ground her, to give her some tangible hope in the moment instead of exploring a deep abstract idea.
At the end of the class, I talked with her. I wanted her to know that I’m here for her. I told her that she needed to own her feelings to help her grieve. I told her that she should reach out to others and know she’s not alone. I also told her that it is hard now, but it will get better.
She started to tell me about how she was feeling. She held up a light blue shirt that had a picture of her mother on it and two doves flying with the picture. In that moment, I had a realization about the assignment itself. I told her, “You’re living the assignment right now. That picture points to something more. Your mother’s legacy has taken flight. The memorial will remind you of the symbol of what your mother’s life was to this world and what she meant to you. You’ve just completed the assignment.”
We are surrounded by symbols that point us to the realization of something greater. They are all around us and pointing us to the greater message we need to know.
In the words of Hazrat Inyat Khan:
“There are many thoughts relating to human nature, to the nature of life, relating to God and His many attributes, and relating to the path toward the goal, that are expressed in symbolism. To a person who only sees the surface things of life, the symbols mean nothing; the secret of symbols is revealed to the souls who see through life, whose glance penetrates through the objects.” Khan notes, “The symbol may be said to be an ocean in a drop.”
The point of the exercise was to get students to see the symbols that surround us and how symbols can give rise to deeper thought and meaning. The exercise played right into my hands. Every now and then as a teacher you get that magic moment where the point resonates like a sustained ringing note at the end of a song. This was one of those moments. There is proof that the greater lessons are all around us, calling to us – inviting us to understand. The teacher becomes the student and the student becomes the teacher.