My step-mom forwarded me an inspiring quote last week: "The greatest good you can do for another is not just share your riches, but to reveal to him his own." That’s Benjamin Disraeli, and I can’t think of a time in my life that this was truer than right now.
I walked into class this week with a lesson plan that was designed to change the lives of every student in the school. This was a blockbuster forty-five minutes of passionate, engaging, entertaining, and insightful preaching that would either soar straight over their heads or knock them right off their chairs. As a teacher I have quickly embraced the philosophy that if the message connects with just one student, then this should be viewed as a success: a triumph of education over the evils of classroom sleeping and peer distraction. This lesson was no exception. It was my opus.
I entitled the session ‘The Secret to Success in Life.’ You may be thinking that this is an ambitious message to communicate in just three-quarters of an hour, but in second-language instruction, every concept becomes poetically succinct. You must always consider the simplest and shortest way to say anything and everything, and often this can lead to interesting results that go beyond comprehension. We don’t often realize it, but flexing one’s vocabulary can have the adverse effect of over-simplifying a layered and nuanced idea, or worse still, it can add the illusion of depth to a painfully thin theory. There is something very profound about shedding the excess weight of erroneous language and being forced to explain every concept in its most skeletal form. As is often the case, less is more.
The opus begins with a photograph of Barack Obama. Korean teenagers are eager to tell me everything they know about him: he is black, he is handsome, and he is running for President. So I start digging… what is so important about Obama? He is black. Right, so why is this important? No one has ever been black and President. Right, but why is this important? Blank faces, until one student chimes in. ‘Equal.’ Bingo. We recount black history in America on the spot, from slavery to the Civil War to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to Rosa Parks to Dr. King to Obama. In a single generation, an African-American man who was barred from voting for President fifty years ago now watches a young black Senator be strongly favoured to win the nation’s highest office. The students can now repeat the first lesson to me: ‘if Obama can be President, I can do anything.’
American power is difficult to quantify until you see its influence first-hand. This week both Newsweek and the Globe in Mail featured articles on the current election being global in its magnitude, drawing unprecedented interest in Obama’s fate from every country that can receive daily news. I wanted more information, and asked my students why they knew so much about Obama – surely they couldn’t name Canada’s Prime Minister or Mexico’s President, so why Barack? One female student informed me that ‘America’s President is the President of the World.’ When he speaks, the world listens. Where America leads, the world follows. The dots come together pretty quickly: hope within America of racial equality through Obama parallels the hope of entire foreign countries for greater equality, because if a nation as polarized as the States can stand up so symbolically to its dark history then we can all be inspired to be more progressive. Countries observe schism on the lines of class, gender, race, or sexual orientation, but global followers of Senator Obama consider his story as a catalyst for their own salvation from discrimination, hate, and fear. If he can, then ‘yes we can.’
I ask the class if South Korea has ever had a female President – a ludicrous question to ask in a conservative country with deeply ingrained gender inequality. The students giggle. I ask why, but this is a troublesome question for a fourteen your old to put into words in front of a large group. I ask the class to tell me what quality they feel is most important in a leader, and they respond appropriately: intelligence. ‘Okay,’ I announce, ‘I want the girls in the class to tell me if you think the boys in this class are smarter than you.’ Now they are listening. ‘Everyone is the same. Everyone. It doesn’t matter if you are black, white, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, a man, a woman, rich, poor, gay, or disabled… you aren’t better than anyone and no one is better than you.’ That is lesson number two.
The final lesson is written on the board: ‘If you believe it, you can do it. You can do ANYTHING. If you want something, you have to work your hardest. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Your dreams are your dreams, and you choose whether they come true. Never, ever quit.’ They all look up at the picture of Obama.
Each student is given a sheet of paper to write a list of ten things they want to do in their life. Their dreams. For most of them, this lesson is a lost cause. Half of them cannot understand what I am saying, and those who can are often too young to let it sink in, all of which sits on top of the fact that I am teaching the quintessential individualist lesson to an extremely collectivist society. For some, this is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I point them out individually: ‘you can walk on the moon, you can climb Mount Everest, you can cure cancer, and you can be the greatest baseball player in history… if you work your hardest and never quit.’ When I peek over the shoulders of the same students later most of them list ‘I want to make my parents happy’ as their number one priority. I feel defeated, but there is always hope to be found if I look hard enough. Peeking over the shoulder of the last girl in the row, I smile. Beside number one she wrote ‘I want to walk on the moon.’ That’s one.
I delivered this lesson twelve times this week, which made it all the more bizarre that I had trouble the thirteenth time. It was mere minutes after one in the afternoon, and as class begun I refreshed the MSNBC page I had been watching closely all morning and saw the words “OBAMA WINS” staring at me in block letters on the screen. I had spent months reading his books, listening to his speeches, and following his every step daily in hopes that this very moment would come, but it was within the context of my simple lesson that brought all of the emotions rushing out of me in front of forty Korean students. There was so much passion inside of me for his candidacy that I misunderstood, and as I spent the week telling students that Obama being President represents the ability for them to do anything in their own lives, I neglected to turn the mirror around on myself. Seeing those words on the screen validated everything I believed about him and hoped in myself, and for that reason alone, I will always remember where I was the moment I heard that Barack Obama was elected President of the United States of America.
"The greatest good you can do for another is not just share your riches, but to reveal to him his own." Indeed.