I don’t believe that all teachers were meant to teach. And, of those who were meant to teach, I’m not convinced that they are all teaching the proper subject. Rather than revolt against a system that puts unfit teachers in developing minds, I have learned to appreciate the teachers who are clearly living out their passion in a classroom.
Arnie Raiff was one of my professors at Columbia College Chicago. He taught Censorship in Writing. Arnie has always been someone to standup for what he believes. Or what someone else believes. There’s a chance Arnie should’ve been a free-speech lawyer or an full-time activist, but he taught instead.
And it was the perfect job for him.
One day, Arnie came to class very bothered. He was wearing one of the many sweaters he owns, a pair of old New Balance walking shoes, and with a scraggly beard you would expect to see on a homeless person. He was holding the day’s Chicago Tribune and waved it at the class as he told the ten of us to quiet down. “I want to read you something,” Arnie said. Then he started on with his standard disclaimer: “You don’t have to believe this, and you don’t have to listen to this, and you don’t have to do anything with this…” And so on for about three or four minutes.
Then he read a story about the war in Iraq and pointed out all of the civilians that died in the attack.
Then he cried. Right there. In front of the ten of us.
Arnie continued on about how the number of civilian “murders” was probably reduced—which ended up being right. He talked about how some of these civilians are children who have nothing to do with the war. They just get in the way on accident. His crying got worse when he said that some countries have begun adding something to drinking water that gives children dysentery. Then the parents see that the children have diarrhea, so they stop giving them water to drink because they think that’s how to stop it. Instead of helping, the children end up dying of dehydration and it’s all because a few people in a different country disagree with their leaders who they have never met, endorsed, or fought for.
And Arnie continued to cry.
It was the crying that got to me in the classroom that day. I held my tears in for the train ride home, and I shed them for the children that die for nothing, the soldiers that die for something, and for all of the people who cause it but never fully understand their actions enough to feel the grief that comes with them.
But it wasn’t until three years later that I understood why Arnie read that article to my class. It was about how censored our society is from the events that happened around the world—extreme hate, wild violence, chaos. It was about how those individuals that die because they got in the way are marginalized. Instead of looking at them as innocents, they are seen as possible terrorists. And what does it matter how many civilians die in another country if it secures safety in ours? Stacked like that, it’s no wonder we put up with seeing those large civilian death tolls. And that’s a perfect example of marginalization.
This I believe: that a good teacher does his or her best teaching outside of the classroom. I believe that a good teaching is timeless, not only forward but backward.
You see, before I ever met Arnie, before I ever went to Columbia, I hated the idea of someone telling me what I could and couldn’t do. The third of four children, I had no problems with parental authority. It was the idea that others could try to control my thoughts that upset me. So when I started writing, I didn’t like it that people could tell me what topics/words/stories/thoughts I could and couldn’t use. But the older I got, the more people stopped telling me. Instead they ignored me and my work. Teachers gave me bad marks without founded explanations. They just didn’t like it, so they did what they could to censor me—they marginalized me.
And that’s what Arnie was teaching me that day, even if it took a little longer for the message to set in.