Sources of joy: On mentors and hearing from former students, Part I

This is an experiment in a different type of blog posts: a series.  Rather than having a self-contained single post, I’m going to develop and share my writing and thoughts about the gifts of mentoring and hearing from former students over the next few days.

As always, questions and comments are welcome.

I used to be pretty loud.

I’m not saying I’m silent now.

Mom’s theory was that I was short, so was making up for it by talking loudly.

I’m not saying she’s wrong, but that wasn’t all of it.

I didn’t feel completely seen.

Many people have helped me change that feeling, and Paul Tamburello’s near the top of the list.

My former fourth grade teacher, mentor, friend and fellow writer has been a witness since I was a student in his class at Brookline’s Pierce School in 1974.

Being seen had its drawbacks, of course.

There was the time I kept talking in morning meeting after he warned me.

Paul shook his head, picked up the yellow piece of chalk and wrote my name on the board.  This meant I had to stay after school.

This was both a rare exception and part of the pattern that illustrated the rule.

He saw us.

About a dozen years after I entered Paul’s classroom my parents were in a very serious car accident.

I stopped out of school in California and moved back to Brookline to be with my family.

During this time Al Fortune, the principal at my former elementary school, invited me to his office.  His voice filled with concern, he asked me how my parents were doing and if I would like to work as a recess aide at Pierce.

This meant I started working in Paul’s classroom, the start of a two-year apprenticeship under his tutelage.

My time there helped me enormously on many levels.  Paul schooled me in the mechanics of being a teacher-I’m glad he did this because, beyond having been a student, I had no idea what I was dong-and, more basically, through his witness, on how to trust and believe in myself.

At the time and in the years afterward, Paul would explain to me that the benefit was mutual, that my being in his classroom as a former student was in some ways the ultimate tribute to, and manifestation of, his impact as an educator.

Although I went on to be come a full-time educator myself for 15 years and had many meaningful interactions with students myself, I didn’t fully feel what he meant.

Until very recently.

Last month I had the unusual privilege and honor of traveling to Durban, South Africa to cover COP17, the United Nations’ conference on climate change.

The conference itself was extraordinary in many ways, and the experience was also drenched in personal meaning.  This was true because 15 years ago I had lived and taught at the Uthongathi School in Tongaat, a formerly Indian community about 25 miles north of Durban.

The year was a very important one for me.

Having been active in the divestment movement as a college student, I had wanted to travel to the country for a decade.  Teaching and coaching soccer at Uthongathi, one of the country’s first private, multi-racial schools, traveling around the country and seeing places like the Cape of Good Hope, and getting to know my exchange partner Vukani Cele’s friends were all contributed to realizing many deeply held dreams for me.

While I was in Durban last month, Vukani arranged for us to meet with four former students from that year.

It was a glorious reunion filled with laughs, satisfaction at hearing how they are all making their way in the world, and exclamations at time’s passage illustrated by the realization that Manqoba, Malindi, Ruwen and Vishan were all older now Vukani and I had been when we taught them.

In one of the evening’s more humorous moments, Malindi, who lectures in Commerce at the University of KwaZuluNatal, told us, “Mr. Lowenstein, Mr. Cele, there’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you for a long time.”

We leaned forward, uncertain what she was going to say.

“When both of you were on dorm duty on the weekends, we knew we could stay out all weekend and never get caught!” she said.

This revelation surprised, but did not completely shock, me.

I had taken more than a month to believe my colleagues that it truly was all right to leave the students unsupervised each morning at 10:00 a.m. while we retreated to the staff room for our daily tea break.  And on the one or two weekends each term that I had dorm duty, I had followed the instructions to check and see if they were sleeping at 11:00 p.m. before turning in myself.

Vukani, on the other hand, looked utterly shocked.

“Jeff?!” he exclaimed.  “What are they telling us?”

I didn’t have much time to answer that question because, to paraphrase American patriot John Paul Jones, Malindi had just begun to confess.

All manner of transgressions issued forth from her.

Where this one drank.

Where that one smoked.

Where the other one fooled around with another student.

Vukani looked more and more stunned with each progressive statement from Malindi.

“What is she telling us, Jeff?” He asked again.

“She’s telling us we were the weakest link,” I replied.

PART II: Shared memories with Manqoba.




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