Old Forgotten Roads
Once there was a moron who spent the days in only his underwear – and a top hat.
Another moron asked, “How come you're in your underwear?”
“Nobody ever comes to visit me,” the first moron replied.
“Oh. Why do you wear the top hat?” was the next question.
“Well,” he answered, “somebody might.”
This is the day of white-hot, nuclear rat race, the age of polluted water, polluted air, of GMO food than cannot be eaten. It’s the age of pre-emptive over-kill warfare and torture. It’s the era of the narcissistic psychopath, lacking all empathy, and therefore all guilt or shame – or hesitation. It’s the new Dark Age in which has been undone every hard-won advance of individual freedom and justice all the way back to and including the Magna Carta. The Liar is King with teeming masses of sycophants yearning to kiss their overlord’s ass in a frenzy of go along to get along.
It might seem a bit nonsynchronous for one to contemplate such matters as integrity, honor, truth – and the art and science of living by the sword. The Fencing Master, as novelist Arturo Perez-Reverte wrote, “Stands guard on old forgotten roads that no one travels anymore.”
The fencing master – by which I mean the consummate professional teacher of the sword and not the typical self-styled dabbling hobbyist– is not only as rare as hens’ teeth, but lonelier than the Maytag repairman’s unicorn.
The Fencing Master attempts to teach subtle connections of the sword to other strands in the web of society to people, most of whom could not connect two dots with superglue and half-inch chain.
He attempts to instill chivalrous virtues in people, for most of whom, mentions of excellence, truthfulness, loyalty and benevolence – draw snickers, sneers, vacuous stares or dumbfounded head shaking. He constantly casts pearls before swine. Tries to teach pigs to sing. Talks but never makes a sound, because there’s no one in the forest to hear.
Why does he do it?
It can’t be fame, and most certainly not fortune.
Is he an idiot? Or a bodhisattva? Your call.
Perhaps it’s because once in a while, in the poignant purgatory of the incurable romantic, something astounding, magical and impossible happens: somebody “gets” it.
Most students are transient and dip their toes daintily in just to see what the water is like. I don’t mean that as a disparaging observation. That’s the way most people are with most things. Most guitar students are content to learn a few chords, strum along as they sing a few songs; only a few plunge in deeply and really strive to master the instrument. And that’s all right. Each person is searching for THE THING that will be their thing, the thing that lights their fire, puts wind in their sails while being careful not to mix those particular metaphors.
And I suspect every teacher is searching, too. Searching for that student for whom the teacher’s THING will be THE THING that the student is looking for. It doesn’t happen often. Just often enough to make you hope it will happen again and, like the moron in our opening story, believe that it might . Ah, the damnable behavior-shaping power of intermittent rewards.
There’s another metaphysical possibility suggested by a colleague. There’s an old saying that “When the student is ready, the master appears.” We usually look at this from the student’s point of view, in a “seek and ye shall find” sort of groove.
But what if, as my colleague suggests, that old saying is the statement of a natural, physical, mathematical law, a variation of “For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction.”
Perhaps the master MUST appear when a student is ready. And the master must always remain ready for that ready student to appear. Maybe the master does what he does because, being a master, he no longer has a choice. Maybe for him, teaching, searching for that student among so many students is an irresistible moral imperative, even knowing full well that before you find a handsome prince, you have to kiss a hell of a lot of frogs.
For me, nothing is more delightful than a student who “gets” it. It keeps me going, and spares me from the decadent dangers of appreciable wealth.
I haven’t yet found THE STUDENT to whom I can impart all I’ve learned over the decades, the young and brilliant heir (or heiress) of my dreams. Several times, I thought I may have done, but alas…
Nevertheless, I know I’ve been blessed with more than my fair share of excellent students who “get” it, or at least part of it, even if the sword is not THE THING they’re looking for.
I thought I’d share with you two of my favorite comments from the course evaluation form I give my students. There are quiet a few other insightful, witty, wonderful comments in those papers, but these two of them stand out. The evaluations are anonymous so I don’t know the identities of these students, but I’d like to give them each a hug.
These comments were in answer to: What was the best thing about the class? What did you learn?
“I did more critical thinking in this class than in any of my academic classes at Cornell.” (Spring 2012)
“I really enjoyed how the random talks in the beginning of the class turned out to have actual meaning for what we were doing each class period.” (Fall 2011)
While it saddens me that the first student’s academic classes did not sufficiently emphasize critical thinking, a skill that is --well, critical – I’m glad he/she benefitted from that part of our class.
What I love about the second comment is that you can almost see the light go one. Seemingly random, unrelated events suddenly become a pattern with meaning.
It doesn’t get much better than that.
It’s students like these that keep me on the road.