The Undivided Life – Chuck Sandy
“If we want to grow as teachers — we must do something alien to academic culture: we must talk to each other about our inner lives — risky stuff in a profession that fears the personal and seeks safety in the technical, the distant, the abstract,” writes Parker Palmer in The Courage To Teach, and so I’d like to tell a story about my continuing journey into wholeness and an undivided life as a teacher and as a person.
At the start of my second year of teaching, I fell into a clinical depression so dark that I wasn’t sure I would get through it. Even getting myself up, dressed, and out of the house was a challenge. Things were that bad. Just when I thought things could not possibly get worse, they did. I was assigned to teach an English Composition course to the freshman members of the university football team.
All these years later, I can still see myself standing in front of that classroom door, trembling with fear as I looked in to see a room full of the biggest, toughest, scariest looking men I’d ever seen gathered in one place. Even under normal circumstances, men like this would have intimidated me. In my depressed state of being, those men terrified me, but somehow I opened that door, walked in and said, “Hi. I’m Chuck Sandy, and I’m going to be your teacher this year.”
They looked at me. I looked at them. No one said a word. I bought myself some minutes by organizing my desk and writing the day’s assignment on the board. The silence deepened. I can’t do this, I thought, and then I reached down as far into myself as I possibly could, pulled out some words, spoke them out loud, and did it.
Still, for that entire hour my inner voice keep saying, “What are you doing, Chuck? You can’t do this. You’re not a teacher. You’re a loser. Tell them you’re sorry. Tell them there’s been some mistake. You’re depressed. Everybody can see that, Chuck. You’re not fooling anyone. It’s as visible to them as it is to you. You can’t do this. Just give up now. There’s no way you’re going to get through this hour.”
And yet, I did get through that hour. Even so, walking across campus after class, I was pretty sure I’d just taught the worst class ever taught in the history of teaching, and completely sure I was an utter failure as a teacher. I was also quite sure I wanted to die. Instead, I went to the first class meeting of the Russian Literature in Translation course I was taking, found a seat, got my notebook out, opened my copy of Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, and tried my best to hide.
My teacher, Marilyn Bendena – a Russian émigré who I thought was probably the most elegant, intelligent, and open person I’d ever seen – made hiding difficult, though. She had us sit in a circle. She pulled her chair in close. She looked into each of our eyes, and in a calm, measured voice, began talking about her life. I was mesmerized. As I packed up my books at the end of that class, Marilyn looked deep into my eyes and said, “I’m glad you made it, Chuck. I’m so happy you’re here.”
That night I went home, and began reading. I read all night. By morning I’d finished Dr. Zhivago. Yesterday, thirty-two years later, I pulled out the book to see what I’d underlined back then. What I’d underlined was:
“How wonderful to be alive, he thought. But why does it always hurt?”
“If you want to know, life is the principle of self-renewal, it is constantly renewing and remaking and changing and transfiguring itself …”
“And remember: you must never, under any circumstances, despair. To hope and to act, these are our duties in misfortune.”
Two days later, I was back with my football players. As I walked into the room for that second class, one of the biggest and scariest looking guys said, “Hey Prof! I got the book! And I did the assignment” and another one said something like “Yeah, me too, but that essay you assigned, I could barely get though it. Some of us guys got together and talked about it, though. Man, this class is going to be hard.”
For some reason I said, “Let’s pull the chairs in a circle” and we did. My inner voice was still saying, “You can’t do this. You can’t do this. You can’t do this” and yet I did.
The essay that had been assigned was Jacob Bronowski’s The Reach Of Imagination, a very difficult and even then rather dated essay that includes these lines:
“Almost everything that we do which is worth doing is done in the first place in the mind’s eye. The richness of human life is that we have many lives. We live the events that do not happen … as vividly as those that do, and if thereby we die a thousand deaths, that is the price we pay for living a thousand lives.”
“Hey, prof” the biggest, scariest guy said, “Isn’t that like when I’m in bed imagining myself going up against a defensive line of huge muscled-up guys and can’t sleep because I think, like ‘I’m going to die.’ Is it something like that?”
No, I wanted to say, it’s like me in bed at night imagining that I’m going to have to come in here and teach you because I feel like I’m going to die, but I didn’t say that. I said, “Yes, that’s it exactly. What we imagine is as real as what’s actually real.”
That was the most difficult year of my entire life, but I didn’t die. Those big football players weren’t scary at all. They were scared, too, scared like I was though for different reasons, and learning this helped me face them each week, and share with them something of who I was then, too.
Still, I was convinced I was a terrible teacher. Still, I was sure everyone could see how broken I was. Every class was a challenge, every day a struggle to get through, and yet I did. At the end of the course, several of those big men lifted me up high in the air, threw me up with three cheers, and told me what a great class it had been.
One day during that Russian Literature course with Marilyn Bendena, she invited me to her office for coffee, and asked me if I was OK. I broke into tears and before I could say a word, she hugged me and told me that I’d be all right. Then she told me about her own struggles, helped me get the professional help I needed, gave me a copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and told me to read it. I did. I got the help I needed and read all 1400 pages of that book. By the time I finished, I was feeling better.
That was the year having a class of big football players to teach, reading Russian literature, and being lucky enough to have Marilyn Bendena as my own teacher saved my life. That was the year I started becoming the teacher I am now, and the person I am still very much in the process of becoming.
The last time I ever saw Marilyn, she gave me a copy of Boris Pasternak’s poem, After The Storm which has these lines at its center:
The gutters overflow; the change of weather
Makes all you see appear alive and new.
Meanwhile the shades of sky are growing lighter,
Beyond the blackest cloud the height is blue.
An artist’s hand, with mastery still greater
Wipes dirt and dust off objects in his path.
Reality and life, the past and present,
Emerge transformed out of his colour-bath.
Feel free to replace the word “artist” with the word “teacher” if you wish.
Parker Palmer writes, “Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the ‘integrity that comes from being what you are’”.
I still suffer from bouts of depression from time to time. I still experience times of brokenness when I feel far from whole, yet I continue to learn, teach, grow, and live. What’s changed mostly is that I’m no longer afraid of being visible, no longer afraid of speaking the truth about who I am and who I’m becoming, and so I tell you this story. I hope someday, you’ll share yours. Here’s to the undivided life.
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