by Teresa Donati
‘Let peace begin with me,’ the song proclaims. As described in Part 1, it can occur in a classroom.
For that matter, it can occur in a supermarket, or in a post office; it occurs anywhere that kindness prevails over anger and rush. For now, it is a second classroom story, different in many ways from the Peppermint Patty escapade described earlier. This time, it was a silent young man, closed and distant, who seemed to find a new peace in an unexpected reaction to ‘failure.’
My university had a special outreach program for students who had come from highly challenged backgrounds. Poverty and racism had taken their toll on these students and their families. They lived the reality of uncertain daily existence. The students were from suburban areas, but not the white picket fence suburbia. They came from cities that punctuate the suburban landscape, from neighborhoods that mirror the ‘inner city’ we wrongly associate only with Chicago or New York.
One young man in that program was in a basic Sociology course that I loved to teach. The course covers an array of topics, including how culture shapes us, economic and religious change, and the nature of the bureaucracies in which so many of us live our lives.
This young man sat in the back of the room, apart from other students, never removing his coat, a cap pulled down to reveal only his eyes. But those eyes! They held the gleam of recognition, the spark that teachers quickly recognize, the look of a student whose mind is engaged with the ideas being presented.
He often took no notes, but just sat there, listening, and thinking.
For all that, however, doing well on examinations requires systematic and concentrated study.
He took the first exam, but was not there the following class when the exams were handed back. (The exams were collected again, and kept in my office until the term’s end.)
He did come to the class after that one. And at the end of the class, as was usual, students would come up to ask questions or to make themselves familiar to me as future majors. My silent young man was one of that group on that day. He waited until everyone had spoken and left, and then he asked, “Did I pass the exam?”
I looked at the grade sheet, and said, “Well, 65 is a passing grade, and you got 62.”
He waited, and I knew that silence. I had witnessed the scorn of teachers toward students who failed an exam, and I had a feeling that he expected such a reaction. My heart was moved by his stoic bearing, what I saw as bravery.
So in a light tone, I said, “But you only missed it by three points! You can easily do three more points next time!”
I can’t say his expression changed, but I did see a quiet appreciation, in his eyes. He had steeled himself for contempt. What he heard was hope. And now I could see relief, and peace, as he nodded his thanks and left.
He continued to sit in silence through every class, until the end of the term. But in every exam after the first one, he earned well over 90 points. I don’t think I will ever forget him, because in this incident, he gave me the opportunity to be a better teacher. He gave me the chance to let peace begin with me.
The gift of peace is the gift of showing the possibility for a life that means something, for effort that is worthwhile. Peacefulness rather than sarcasm changes our world view, it enhances our sense of well-being, and our sense that there is and can be goodness in the world. Teachers are blessed to be able to do that, to urge students to be their best selves.
Three points on an exam, so little meaning in the larger universe, so telling for him: he heard that he was not far from the winning line. He had expected to hear that he should give up the race completely.
Saint Paul said it: “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” And we need to keep faith in each other, so that even those who stumble in their first steps will know that they can try again. And finish the race. And succeed. And find peace.