(This article was first published in the December 2014 issue of Teacher Plus, a beautiful magazine for educators.)
It’s amazing how much courage you can draw from listening to a story. I’ve felt this several times, and most recently while watching two solo theatrical performances by Martin Moran. This talented actor from New York was at Mumbai’s Tata Literature Live festival in November 2014 with The Tricky Part and All The Rage.
The whole of The Tricky Part is built from Moran’s devastating experience of sexual abuse from the ages of 12 to 15 at a summer camp. In a world where large numbers of people are unable to report sexual abuse, confide in friends and family, or even acknowledge it to themselves, this telling itself is an act of incredible courage.
I felt honoured to be there. It felt like Moran, through his storytelling, was creating a sacred space and inviting us to bear witness. It seemed to be his story, and simultaneously that of many others who’ve been unable to break their silence.
That production had so much in it — — humour, affection, the joys of childhood, confusion, hurt, pain, shame, horror, healing. And most strikingly, compassion for the man who did that to him. A man 20 years his senior, his camp counsellor. A man who is called out for how he hurt the child’s body, mind and spirit, and also recognized for the emotional anchor he became for a boy struggling with his parents’ separation and his own sexual identity.
In addition to the personal catharsis this play made possible, it also got me thinking about some questions that might interest fellow educators.
* What is the quality of listening that we bring to our conversations with students?
* How often do we celebrate courage in our classrooms?
* Do we model the sharing of vulnerability to build trust?
* How willing are we to learn from our students’ life experiences?
* Why do we tell the stories we do?
* Are we comfortable with nuanced readings of stories, or do we feel compelled to use them as tools to teach right and wrong?
* Do we welcome stories that don’t sit comfortably with our political beliefs?
* Are we open to being called out for the sexism, racism, or homophobia in our stories?
* Do we create sufficient time to discuss what each one needs to feel safe in the classroom community?
* When students feel safe enough to share difficult stories, do we honour their expectation of confidentiality?
* Do we approach sensitive issues with compassion or just political correctness?
I feel like we spend very little time thinking about such questions, especially around the relationship between courage and storytelling. When I look back at the value education and moral science classes I sat through as a school going child, I’m surprised that we devoted hardly any time to talking about courage. Punctuality, honesty, cleanliness, respect for elders, kindness and such came up quite regularly. But not courage.
I don’t mean courage in the sense of valour, in terms of leading armies or decimating opponents, for we did encounter such things in our history lessons. I mean courage in the sense of being able to speak truth to power. I guess so much was about obedience and conformity that courage somehow took a backseat.
When I examine my own teaching practice through a critical lens, I realize that I too have participated in perpetuating structures of power and domination in the classroom setting. I too have asked students to mind their own business instead of chatting with others. I too have felt unnerved when small group discussions have turned chaotic enough to upset the lesson plan.
Along with this frank admission, I also feel a certain satisfaction about having stood up for students when I’ve known that they were being unfairly punished by colleagues, or having prioritized being available for students over staff meetings.
Courage is surprisingly undervalued in the school space — whether it involves thinking outside the box, students asking critical questions of teachers, or standing up for fellow students against bullies. I wonder how different school environments might be if we recognized courage as as something we value and wish to nurture.
Geshe Lhakdor, my teacher of Buddhist philosophy at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, once said, “The biggest giving is the giving of fearlessness.”
I wish we educators could offer this gift to our students — — through our presence in the classroom, through the stories we bring in, and the ones we make space for students to share. I wish we could help them discover strength not in superheroes but in ordinary folks doing small acts of courage, and most importantly in themselves.
Recommended Reading: Stories of Courage
1. Flight of the Hummingbird: A Parable for the Environment by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas
2. Alia’s Mission by Mark Alan Stamaty
3. Chuskit Goes to School by Sujatha Padmanabhan
4. Catch that Crocodile! by Anushka Ravishankar
5. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
6. Kabir: The Weaver Poet by Jaya Madhavan
7. Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr
8. The Freedom Writers’ Diary by Erin Gruwell
9. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
10. The Why-Why Girl by Mahasweta Devi
11. Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks
12. Return to Ithaca by Barbara Newborn
(Source for both images: http://www.alltherageplay.com/#gallery)