The most inspiring thing I have found in my almost four months of being here is the patchwork quilt of community that I have somehow been woven into at the MSRI school. Opening the door to that small stairway I can feel the thrum of chaotic energy. Knowing that I am small part of the buzz of energy of the floors above me is what I have come to know as a meaningful life. Coming to know the order in the seemingly orderless frenzy is the most inspiring thing to me. Learning how everything actually happens in the fever pitch of the school has makes me feel the joy of being there. The people and the rhythms and pattern of those small daily catastrophes that seem to occur every five minutes in the school are now a familiar comfort. My knowing that there are students and teachers who will call me by name and greet me with a sincere smile has become a home to me.
As for being with the students themselves, there is nothing quite like being at the mercy of 400 of kids. It certainly keeps all your ideas about yourself in check. Walking into a school every day I think is one of the best ways to check your ego, because you walk in and those 400 kids aren’t taking your bullshit. They’re not taking all the stories that you’ve made up about yourself. They see down to your core and then they exploit the shit out of it in any way they can. They see all your weaknesses, they know when you don’t know what you’re doing, they know exactly how to push your buttons, they know when you’re lying and they’ll call you on it in front of the entire class with whom you are trying to gain respect. They have no mercy whatsoever for your ego and you are not getting away with all the regular stories that you tell to people about yourself.
It keeps you humble for sure.
And for all that, walking into that school everyday is something I am so grateful for. The feeling of students, however few, greeting with excitement, having a laugh with me, or sharing a knowing grin with me when they know they are out of line, makes me feel like a raging success in my life. Being taken into their confidence has been the best part of my life here.
Going in everyday and looking up the first flight of stairs into the face of the woman in the office, is one of the things I look forward to everyday. I look up those stairs into one the most holy faces I have ever met on this planet. A modern saint sitting at the top of the first flight of stairs in a dusty school, completely hidden from the world. No one would imagine that some hidden doorway is a gateway to this kind of human generosity. Coming up those stairs every day and walking into that community of people who are committed to creating meaning in young people lives is one of the most humbling things I have ever been part of in my life. Sitting in a small room with notebooks and schoolbooks and pens and coloured paper and laughter and care is an honour I don’t know how I got in life.
There’s a particular smile you get when you speak someone’s tongue as an outsider. It’s a truly wonderful smile. I can now come into a room and greet almost everyone in their own language. It’s only two or three words but it has been the connection point for so many of my relationships in that school. Coming into a room and being able to even speak two words of greeting to someone in their own language has brought me into the community in a way that I don’t think I would be without my poor daily attempts at language.
I have found particular community with the women teachers in the school and being able to sit in a room full of women from all over the world and laugh at a joke altogether (usually at the expense of the men, which seems to be the universal thing that all women can laugh at no matter where they’re from) is heart warming for me.
Often, I think about how many people must come to work everyday in that same office building and have no idea just how close they are to the saints of this world. How many people drive by that building everyday and only see a slightly rundown cracked office building in some non-descript part of town? They pass by every day never knowing the sheer amount of grace and resilience that that building houses.
Other times, I think about all the people who live and work around that little school who must sometimes just become happy by osmosis. For instance, on the last day of exams everyone in that building must feel some inexplicable freedom and excitement. They must sometimes have unexplained highs and have no idea why they feel joyful. How could they know that their mood runs on the energy of those hallways where teachers cajole their students with all the sternness of affable uncles, or that teachers capture their student’s imagination for a magic moment in the sea of noise and chaos, or that small bodies tear round the rooms with the force of willpower that would flatten even the most hardened of us?