Often times we teachers are so concerned with the learning and impressionability of our students that we forget that we ourselves are impressionable entities as well. Most of the time we focus on the cognitive development of our students, the refining of their budding morality, that proverbial strike of the flint that sparks the innovation within all of us. But every so often we are struck by our students’ actions—sometimes intentional, often times not—and we realize the potential of the work that we do, the lessons truly learned, and the reaffirmation in our collective faith in ourselves.
Exactly a week ago, I gave my government classes a ridiculous rhetorical question that probably was not meant to be answered: Are human beings inherently good or evil? Considering the ramifications of the answers, the facets of each consideration, and the moral ambiguity of the essential terms, in retrospect it might have been too ambitious a move. There was enough within that question, those seven words, to last an entire period.
To help, I provided the question within the frame of government, providing the theories of Hobbes and Locke to reinforce their responses. My students debated the question and were, to my surprise, very evenly split. Hobbes was correct, many of my students argued, because we, in fact, exist in a state of nature. Jonathan Kozol, author of inner-city educational portraits Savage Inequalities and Amazing Grace, might agree: “The typical average family income in the South Bronx for a year is about $10,000 in this neighborhood. About 75% of the men are unemployed. About a quarter of the children have chronic asthma– there’s an awful lot of asthma in the neighborhood.” But the other half advocated for Locke, remaining true to his belief in the inherent goodness of mankind. They cited their role models and teachers as sources of inspiration; that despite the aforementioned circumstances of their surroundings, there exists the possibility of a better world. Overly idealistic, I mused, but admittedly with some warrant.
But I’ve found that one of the most frustrating things about being a teacher is that teaching often exists within a vacuum, limited by the walls of the classroom and the bells that designate respective periods. Every class ends the same: after forty-five minutes of great debate, one class leaves and another shuffles in like an assembly line. And through the day I cannot help but wonder how much really stuck and if the lessons taught will truly resonate with my students outside the realm of my class.
Later that day, I assumed my second guise at my school as coach of the law team. Once a week, I take the team down to Clifford Chance, a corporate litigation firm in the East Side of Manhattan. There we work with several attorneys who spend part of their day working pro-bono with the students, developing the proper skills required for their mock trial competition later in the year. And through cross-examinations and case research, my students develop the rhetoric and courtroom decorum that even the most skilled attorney would need in a court of law.
The journey from Westchester Square in the Bronx to 51st Street on the 6-train is approximately 40 minutes. During this time, I usually review my students’ statements and play devil’s advocate in order to fine-tune their logical support. Through this I often get cross-examined myself, with candid questions about my personal life that I in turn deflect to them, an essential skill that I explain every litigator should master. And through it all I am still amazed at how engrossing a teacher’s personal life is to a group of students.
But then something unexpected happened that day. New York being New York, no subway ride would be complete without some interesting performance or outburst. I’ve seen makeshift concerts, break-dancers, and unintentional comedians during my morning and afternoon commutes on the 6-train. I’ve also seen plenty of homeless panhandlers, but the one from last week is forever seared into my mind. He limped with slow, methodical movements, which led me to assume that he had some sort of neurological disease. As he gingerly wove his way through the crowd, he announced his predicament to his audience. He was homeless, he explained, and stricken with a disease and that limited his ability to work. Slowly, he offered his hat, humbly accepting any charity. “I haven’t eaten in days,” he muttered. “I’ll even eat your leftovers.”
Believe it or not, this wasn’t the first homeless person I’ve seen on the train, so I assumed the requisite New York response, which is to return to your New York Times or i-phone as soon as possible. And the majority of the passengers on board the 6-train that day did just that. But through the corner of my eye I noticed my students, the law team, reaching into their backpacks. They pulled out bags of chips, an apple, a muffin. One teammate reached into her wallet and pulled out a dollar and offered it to the man. It was silent throughout these transactions and immediately afterwards the law team resumed their conversations, as if nothing happened. The whole event lasted but a minute, and soon the homeless man waddled away.
I was taken aback. In a train containing businessmen in suits, why did the philanthropists wear Chuck Taylors? How is it that these kids, denizens of one of the poorest sections of New York, who experience the pains of poverty, violence, and corruption on a daily basis, can display such generosity? My initial assumption was that it stemmed from naïveté. They didn’t know better, I thought to myself. It seemed like an instinctual series of actions: they saw a pathetic entity and they felt remorse and they sought to assuage that remorse. That motivation in itself is based upon guilt, but what I saw on the 6-train certainly couldn’t be construed as selfish in any respect. There was no ulterior motive; in fact, they were least likely to benefit directly and indirectly from such transaction. Their motivation, I can only imagine, was altruism, in its most unadulterated form.
If so, then where did this benevolence come from? It’s nothing new; Kozol noted the exact same phenomenon in Amazing Grace: “Why should these children trust a stranger who can come into their world at will and leave it any time he likes? Why should they be so generous and open? Yet many of them are. In the drabness of the neighborhood…(it) seems like the sunshine that has not been seen in New York City during many months of snow and storm and meanness.”
And through it all I came to a powerful realization, coalescing the very lesson I taught earlier that day to my own life: Human beings aren’t inherently good because they are born with goodness or display the propensity to do good deeds. Human beings are inherently good because they possess the potential to be good despite the ills that surround them. It is this optimism I see with my students—even in a fleeting moment on the 6-train—that inspires me to come into the classroom. That sort of optimism is contagiously inspiring and embodies the potential we humans possess.
But as a teacher, the great gesture wasn’t necessarily the display of altruism itself, which was undoubtedly inspiring. What was most inspiring was the destruction of the vacuum walls, the perception of the limited scope of the classroom obliterated. Sometimes I get so caught up in my role as teacher that I surprise myself when I find the roles switch. It took an event like this to help me realize that I have as much to learn from my students as they do from me. And through it all I realize now that my perceptions of human nature have changed for the better, an unintentional consequence of a life lesson learned on the southbound 6-train.