The bell rang and the students filed out after what had been a rather mundane lesson on using comparative language to discuss the electromagnetic spectrum. I sat at my desk intently making notes to better our next class. Mirkesh sidled up to my desk and with his characteristic grin and impish gestures pointed to the guitar case on a high shelf behind me and asked, “Mrs. Western, what is this?” It was not uncommon for him to stop by for a personal chat after class. One day last fall year he wouldn’t leave until I could sing an entire lullaby in Nepali. He still greets me in the morning with the one line I managed to grasp, “Loi, Loi”.
I knew he knew it was a guitar. What I heard him asking instead was, “Why don’t you ever play that?” In a moment free of self-monitoring or forethought I replied, “It’s your guitar.” Mirkesh didn’t bat an eyelash as I brought it down from the shelf. Years earlier I used this guitar to strum the tune of, “one little, two little, three little American Indians – to teach one of the Japanese counting systems to some other inquisitive language learners. I had borrowed the guitar from the closet in the World Language Department where I had noticed it sitting for the 6 years I had been teaching Japanese. My supervisor was about to retire and said, “I would like you to have this guitar. A student who enlisted to fight in the Vietnam War asked me to hold it for him, and you see, it is still here.”
My mother gave me my first guitar when my second child was born. It was an Oscar Schmidt she bought at the church rummage sale. Bob, the perpetual usher, also worked at the town dump and had rescued that instrument with a broken neck. He glued it back on and voila, $5 later, I was knocking out “Hush Little Baby”. Yet my skill has not progressed much beyond the lullabies I learned to sing my own children to sleep.
The World Language guitar remained in my classroom ‘just-in-case’. I tried to use it a few times; the tuning had become impossible even after replacing the nylon strings. Meanwhile I had acquired a new-to-me Martin and my son and husband each have a guitar in our living room at home. Students who had tried to play the Vietnam-era classical became frustrated, as did I. So there it sat. A great story. And in fact before opening it I felt just a little guilty for gifting something less-than-desirable to an eager learner; I didn’t want to ultimately hinder his learning. I rationalized that maybe it would prompt him to go further, and if he was really going to play, that he would find another guitar.
I took the 6-string out of its case and tuned it up in a few seconds. That was unexpected. I strummed a few familiar cords on metal strings. Wow, oh no! I felt a twinge in my stomach as the realization took hold. This was not the bequeathal from a wise and beloved administrator. “Oscar Schmidt” inlaid in white cursive blinked like a billboard from the head by my left hand. This was my first ‘real’ guitar – the one I learned to play 22 years ago. I don’t even remember when I switched out my classroom guitars – or where that other gut-box went. Mirkesh sensed my hesitation and continued admiring the instrument without any possessive demonstration. Now the ‘real’ decision was literally ‘on the table.’
I showed him a few cords and he played them back effortlessly. Decision made. We agreed he would practice 10 minutes a day and name it ‘Oscar’. I watched them walk out to the bus stop together, new friends.
When I learned that Mirkesh’s mentor-tutor from SMC, the one he met by chance on the slopes the day before their first scheduled English lesson when Mirkesh decided he wanted to learn snowboarding but had not yet signed-up and got on the bus anyway, was going to become his guitar tutor, it played right into the score.
In a culmination of serendipity, last week while catching up on the chores at home during summer vacation I was vacuuming the living room and noticed a label in blue marker on the guitar at the base of the pile… ‘ROOM 101’ – my classroom. It was the classic from the World Language closet. I had probably brought it home for the summer last year or the one before thinking I had grabbed Oscar. Now I know why.
The most fulfilling moments as a teacher for me have been when something unplanned comes up in class – or out of class. Getting to the end of a chapter or entering grades too often becomes the intention that blurs my vision. The bells and bustle of progress through the corridors and collegial complaints become the din that muffles my hearing. Sometimes we are lucky enough to be alerted by some great wind of generous spirit and are able to seize the moment, nurture its potential, and watch the expansion in students’ minds and hearts. In this moment the student becomes the teacher by showing me that the outcome, grammar or pronunciation, are not the only focus of our interactions. When we appreciate this as teachers we experience true bliss. That one moment, I managed to put aside the confines of daily cares and expectations to make room for a question from a student. I managed to flow with the unrehearsed wisdom available to us all. Thank you Mirkesh, I am blessed. ‘Loi Loi’.