Friday, December 3, 2010

Hanukah


I am a teacher.

Sometimes as a teacher of a foreign language I am considered fluff in the pocket of curricula. What do I teach? Nothing except how to ask where the bathroom is, when to use tell (for a story, a lie, or the truth and always with a direct object), and how to write a simple essay (five paragraphs consisting of one introductory, one conclusion, and three for the body). But what content do I teach? Do I teach them how to think like the logicians do? Do I teach them to create something like the engineers and the physicists? No, nothing so noble as this.

I teach them to communicate with their fellow human being. That’s no small feat. But every now and then, a moment of great holiness arises before me, and I teach something sacred. I teach them about life.

We talk of controversial issues in Unit 9. Politics, monarchy, democracy, dictatorship. Are you in favor of or opposed to X issue? What would you do if the government took away your freedom to X? Ah yes, very esoteric, conceptual things. Is war good or bad? Bad they say. Always bad? Yes, always. Oh, so the next time a Hitler rises to power, we should allow him to incinerate millions of people, when Japan decides to come to Korea again and take over the land, we should allow them to destroy the culture, rape the women, work the men to death or just murder people outright. War is bad, you say. Always?

And their eyes glaze over. They know. Yes, they know. Sometimes I teach them to tap into their accrued knowledge and sense of fair play, their own moral compass, but again what do I teach them?

“Last week we talked of racism, religious persecution, and other forms of discrimination,” I say to the class as I turn off the lights. “You said we should respect others’ cultures but could not give an example.” So again today I ask them, “what does respect look like?” Their faces look up at me, mouths agape, giving me fish face. “What does respect look like?”

And I turn on a 1 minute video showing a Jewish family lighting the Menorah on Hanukah at a community gathering that is decked out with Santa, Christmas trees, a wreath, and a Yule log. What is happening in the story? I ask them. Fish face is their only response.

“They are celebrating Hanukah.”

Fish face.

It occurs to me, “do you know what Hannukah is?”

Fish face.

”Have you heard of Hanukah?”

No, heads shaking.

“You’ve never heard of Hanukah?” I am incredulous. It is in my voice. I didn’t hide my surprise. That is the thing with surprise. It comes upon you as, well, a surprise.

And I take a moment to breathe, I say a quick prayer. Not even words, just an opening that the spirit of light and love will lead me to teach this lesson, to teach this story to them, that I will honor my Jewish friends with a telling of the story of the Maccabees and the Miracle of the Lights. It is in that moment that the humble reality that I am a teacher falls upon me like a shroud.

“The Macabees were a people long ago,” I begin. There, on the third floor of the Main Building, in South Korea, I tell them the story of Hanukah. Did I tell the story in great detail? No, I didn’t. But I did talk about the miracle of the lights, having faith, and respecting other’s religious beliefs. I showed them that in our little one minute video what respect looks like – it means action, it means having a menorah in the midst of the winter holiday decorations so that everyone will feel included. It is knowing that my way is not the only way.

Light and love to you all,
pamila