Fresh out of college, without a job, and needing some money to pay the rent I became a substitute teacher in the Cambridge, Massachusetts public schools. Substitute teaching in inner-city public schools in the United States was a horrible job. $25 for a day in hell. Teach? Impossible! Just surviving to the end of the day was the goal. The tough, city kids were too much for me, or maybe any substitute teacher—they ate me up from the ring of the opening bell and spit me out when the bell mercifully rang after last period, signaling that the punishment was over. I was desperate for anything that would help me to do more than just make it through the day, and one morning while walking to a new school, I broke into a smile as I got what I thought was a brilliant idea.
I strode into the fourth grade classroom with as much confidence as I could muster, though only a few kids seemed to notice or care. I faced them and told them to sit down and be quiet – in Japanese. One by one, they started to turn their heads and stare at me. I repeated my directions. Their incredulous looks turned to smiles. They peppered me with questions:
“What did you say?”
“You okay mister?”
“What language you speaking?”
I looked at them as if in disbelief,
“I’m speaking Japanese, don’t you understand?”
They shouted back, “No man, teach us Japanese!”
And so I did and the day flew by. I taught them how to say "hello" and how to write their names. We learned the names of their favorite foods and hobbies. We played games and learned the names of body parts and common objects around them. I had their interest and attention. They were curious and eager learners. And they were fresh, all beginners with many possibilities. One child in particular, Jamal, was enthusiastic and continually asked me questions all day, “How do you say ‘interesting’?” “How do you write ‘Maria’?—that’s my sister’s name.” “How do you say, ‘Mother’?” I left school with a smile of satisfaction on my face.
By chance, the next day I was called to a different classroom at the same school and I happened to bump into the regular teacher of the previous day’s class. She asked me how it had gone and was surprised when I told her it had gone well, and more surprised when I explained that I had taught them Japanese. Her eyes widened in disbelief when I told her that Jamal had distinguished himself with his curiosity and diligence. Then she surprised me by saying, “Jamal is not a bright child; he never does anything, just sits there in the back of the room and spaces out.”
I got a steady teaching job shortly after that and forgot about that glorious day but a few years later as I was walking through that same part of the city I heard someone call out,
I turned and faced a smiling young teenager. I didn’t recognize him at first, but he stunned me by exclaiming:
“You’re the guy who taught us Japanese!”
It was one of those rare moments in life when everything seems to stand still and come into focus. I was overwhelmed with joy when I realized that it was a now adolescent Jamal, the kid who had been most excit
ed and enthused about learning Japanese from me on that day years ago. And I recalled the regular teacher’s surprise at how involved Jamal had been in my class, not at all like the child she described as “oppositional” and “challenged’ in learning. Maybe that’s how he was with her and how she saw him, but with me he had had a fresh start and a level playing field—a beginner’s mind. He was not the child who had been labeled as “slow,” or “unmotivated”; he was a new and eager learner. This was an indelible and unforgettable experience for me in understanding how we learn and how we teach.
In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki writes, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities.” The world looks different after a “disorienting dilemma” in which we have to challenge our assumptions to make sense of what is going on. When an ordinary situation is “defamiliarized,” we can see it as if for the first time. What springs forth from within us can be truly miraculous and a joy to behold in teaching and learning.