(Meta)Physical Education is a series about the lessons that Alex Tzelnic, a Zen practitioner, has learned while teaching gym at a Montessori school. You can read more of Tzelnic’s stories here.
The greatest compliment I’ve ever received as a teacher came in the spring of 2008. I was fresh out of college and just finishing my first real job: six months of teaching English in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Over the previous weeks I’d connected with a student named Than, and when she found out I was returning to America she wrote me a note. This was not unusual—she had been writing me notes the whole semester.
The first of these was an angry one. I’d made a ruling against Than’s team in a game, and she gave me a note that said “I hate you Alex pig,” and then in a swirling purple bubble script “I HATE TEACHER.”
The notes became sweeter, if not stranger. She once wrote, “I think you: 1) Funny but not pretty. hi hi. 2) Lovely but crazzy. ha ha.”
Another time, at the end of an assignment, Than wrote: “This letter only you and me know, don’t give people third know. OK? If you speak people third know, I will kill you and never talk with you. he he.” For a brief period I feared for my life. But in Than’s goodbye note she wrote a phrase that should be the aim of everyone who ever enters into education:
“Although I want tell you ‘hi, teacher’ I don’t want tell you ‘bye teacher.’”
At the start of that trip I never would have envisioned such a fulfilling experience. Socrates once said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” If that is the case, I arrived in Vietnam as wise as they come. I knew nothing about teaching. I’d spent my entire life as a student, and the thought of standing up in front of a classroom and imparting knowledge was absolutely terrifying. But, as a recent philosophy graduate, I wasn’t exactly weighing competing job offers. All I knew was that I wanted to travel, and teaching seemed like a good way to do it.
Armed with an online ESL degree, I soon found myself standing in front of a classroom of eager Vietnamese students. The lessons I’d taken in classroom management and introductory vocabulary didn’t quite prepare me for the challenge of taking attendance in a tonal language that I was entirely unfamiliar with. As I read off each name on the list, the students howled with delight. Then one girl informed me I was reading the names backwards. I couldn’t even finish the attendance before I was peppered with questions:
“Teacher how old are you?”
“Where do you come from?”
“Do you have girlfriend?”
After the lesson, the school employee who had been sent to observe me politely suggested that I might fare better in a different line of work. But I had flown halfway around the world to teach, and the school, desperate for native English speakers, was all too happy to lead me to the slaughter. I took the position. I did not know how I was going to make it through the next six months.
In practice we often talk about not-knowing. In the Shobogenzo, Eihei Dogen, who founded the Soto Zen school in the 13th century, relates this story:
Zen master Daowu visited the assembly of master Shitou.
Daowu asked, “What is the fundamental meaning of buddhadharma?”
Shitou said, “Not to attain, not to know.”
Daowu said, “Is there some turning point in going beyond, or not?”
Shitou said, “The vast sky does not hinder the white clouds from flying.”
This kind of point can seem counterintuitive, like a glorification of idiocy. Not-knowing seems like a great thing to aspire to as long as you know that not-knowing is code for a form of super-knowing. After all, Shitou knows that the fundamental meaning of buddhadharma is not to know. But in Ho Chi Minh City I got to understand not-knowing in an entirely different way. I truly didn’t know how to teach. I’d read about it. I had taken an online course. But I was like the professor who went to visit the Zen Master Nan-in. As the professor droned on about Zen, Nan-in poured him tea, and kept pouring until the cup overflowed.
“Can’t you see the cup is full?” the professor asked.
“Like this cup,” said Nan-in, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
What I began to understand in Vietnam is that there is a humility to not-knowing that keeps us curious, alert, and humble. The thought of teaching was only slightly less terrifying than the thought of returning home a failed teacher, and so I entered the classroom each day with the alertness of a cornered animal. Some of the veteran teachers had learned to keep order with ear twists and slaps upside the head, but these were not methods I was willing to adopt. And so there were tough classes and nights when I came home from work feeling like I failed.
But there were other nights when I’d laugh with the students, develop a rapport, and feel that something had been conveyed; if not the English language exactly, then at least a cross-cultural connection that enriched both parties. There were days when I’d pull explanations from the ether, or gesture and draw until the point was understood, the class turning into some sort of frenzied international charades and Pictionary workshop. I learned key Vietnamese phrases such as troi oi, sau, and dien—oh god, liar, and crazy—that would elicit raucous laughter and get the attention of the students. I learned to eat pho with my head dipped low towards the bowl so soup splatters stopped appearing on my work shirts. Slowly but surely I emptied my cup.
A few months into the experience, I wrote in my journal: “On the ride after work last night I realized that teaching had been the best part of my day. I was so engaged that I completely forget all else. It was a wonderful thing.”
Now, years later, I’d like to think that not-knowing has made me a better teacher. In Vietnam I learned that not-knowing does not mean feigning ignorance to seem wise, nor does it mean being unprepared and winging it because “going with the flow” is somehow enlightened. Not-knowing means being open and playful. Not-knowing means engaging without an expected outcome and being willing to be wrong so that you can ultimately get it right. This kind of approach might be funny, and it might not always be pretty, hi hi, but it’s always a bit lovely and crazy, ha ha.
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