Musings on firsts, on teaching, and on happiness.

Someone on a crappy TV show once said the sad thing about getting older was that you run out of firsts. You know: first kisses. First jobs. First apartments. The kind of stuff that makes you feel a medley of panic and exhilaration, of anxiety and anticipation. It’s a wonderful cocktail of emotions, especially when you come out the other end with only the good parts left, ready to take on the world. And then, after you’ve done your happy dance and the adrenalin levels have dropped, you suddenly realize how very tired you are, and you slip into a the most peaceful, dreamless sleep – the kind of sleep that mostly happens after firsts (and maybe seconds, or thirds; basically until your firsts become the new normal). The best sleep of all sleeps.

The good thing is that I’ve never run out of firsts, and I don’t think I ever will, either. It’s because firsts don’t need to be big at all. I love getting lost in details, and all those tiny little firsts make me just as happy as the big ones used to.

Last Tuesday was a first. For the first time, I taught a dog training group class. It was SO much fun. I had THE MOST AWESOME STUDENTS in the entire world. You know, I felt like the single six most wonderful people and five most wonderful dogs had come together to share MY first. I went home smiling. I inspected my sun burn, smiling. I went to bed, smiling, and fell asleep, smiling, and woke up, still smiling. “The sun is chirping, the birds are shining, the water’s wet. Life is good, sweetheart. Life is good.” The next day, I sat down and started planning week 2, because planning means coming up with awesome stuff for awesome dogs and awesome people, and that’s what I love. And it’s just a terrific feeling to get to do something I love and share it with people who love the very same thing. It’s rare and awesome and precious, and it makes me feel like I am where I want to be in my little life, with my dogs and my jobs and my friends and the rest of the world. Which is a feeling that keeps amazing me, no matter how often it happens. I hope I’ll never take it for granted.

Actually, when I think back on other teaching experiences, firsts of that kind usually make me feel that way. The first pro-seminar I taught at the English department. The first German class I taught at Deutschakademie. The first class I taught for Volkswagen in Mexico. The first private dog training lesson. The first group training. That volunteer thing at COMI in Oaxaca where Rachel and I would tell people about how to cross the Arizona desert. Which was kind of ridiculous, because neither of us had tried to walk through a desert in our lives. We were supposed to be teaching, but really, we were learning another puzzle piece about what it means to be human. And about how you can strip away culture and backgrounds and criminal records and language and passports and find, if you’re both willing to look for it, that point where you are equals, that little something you have in common (maybe you both like the way your grandmothers used to cook), and then – go from there, and build a relationship. The kind that has something tiny as a basis, is not meant to last longer than a few days, or weeks, or months, but is authentic and precious and important for both of you. This really is the essence of being a teacher, and the essence of being a student: you can walk into a room like you would into a potluck dinner and just see where it takes you. I’d like to walk through life that way, too, even though approaching life-as-such that way is harder than approaching a classroom that way. But – back to my dog training class.

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Anyways, so if I have a teaching opportunity, I start preparing a long time before I actually have to teach, just because preparing stuff for hypothetical students makes me very happy. And then the first lesson gets closer, the cocktail of all those intense feelings kicks in, and I’m a little nervous and super excited, and then I go in ready to embrace whoever turns up and whatever the experience turns out to be. The experience loses the chance to be a bad one the moment I step into it, because I drop my expectations, I’m curious who I’ll meet, and willing to connect (“Only connect! […] Only connect the prose and the passion […].”). And that’s what usually happens. Not all the time. Not with every single student. But in every group of students, there is a few people I connect with. Whose opinions and ways of seeing the world, whose gestures or smiles resonate with me. Who I’ll inspire and be inspired by. Even if it’s just one person, that one person makes all the work that goes into teaching worthwhile, and reconciles me with all the difficult stuff.

About ten years ago, an old friend told me she didn’t think I had it in me to be a teacher. I almost believed her, because she was one of those intense people who can turn a room full of people silent simply by walking through the door. She had been an FH teacher for a while back then, and she thought teaching was nerve-wrecking, and most students tended to be either lazy or mean, if not both. If she, a force-of-nature type of person, felt that way, how could I (more a gentle breeze than a force of nature) ever be the kind of teacher I wanted to be? As for most rooms, I’d rather step in quietly than make a big entrance. It’s not that I can’t make a big entrance. I’ve taught myself to do that, so if I need to, I can be intense and stormy and look into your eyes and make you feel like I can see all the way to the very bottom of your soul. But that’s not me. It costs energy. It makes me tired. It makes me want to not be around people, go home and curl up on the couch with my dogs. I prefer people I want to be myself with.

Interestingly, most people who end up being my students have been the second kind of people. The kind of people I loved teaching, and the kind of people I love getting to know. The kind of people who don’t require their teacher to wear a mask of perfection or superiority. I don’t know if this just means I’ve been lucky to end up with the right kind of students. Or if – and I would like to believe this to be true – approaching people open-mindedly and sharing your passion for a certain subject with those who want to hear it, and letting the others choose to engage or disengage for themselves – actually inspires people to enjoy being in a class. I have found that being (A) authentic and (B) empowering make for a good learning atmosphere. And that (C) giving students the greatest possible responsibility they can bear lets them act more responsibly. (“If you want people to feel accountable, give them something to account for!”) And that (D) what a class is meant to be about for a particular student is always defined by the student, not by the teacher. And that (E) everyone I meet can potentially teach me as much as I can teach them, no matter who is formally referred to as student or teacher. And that is, in fact, the part I love most. I don’t go “to work”: I venture out into the world to connect with new human beings (and new dogs, in this case). And then, I come back home, and for a day or two … the world makes sense to me.

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Thank you, Monika & Criso, Elisabeth & Johnny, Gerti & Sammy, Helene & Xandro, Natascha & Dessy for sharing my first this week, and for making my Tuesday!

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