I had a student once. Let’s just call him Max. He used to sit at one far side of the classroom where he often was unnoticed. He quietness added to his invisibility. I did hear him say some things sometimes but these were usually answers I didn’t expect from my questions. He finished my course though but I’ve already forgotten what grade he got. Well, okay, I really didn’t exactly remember him after he graduated the way I remember some of my outstanding students.
Then, I had a chance to meet him again, this time, as a classmate in a graduate class. We hardly talked though and I just assumed that he probably didn’t like me as a teacher. I, on the other hand, felt some insecurity about being his classmate.
Months of school followed and this class I’m taking with him is turning out to be the most difficult graduate class I have taken. I can barely understand the texts used in the course and I hardly find myself meaningfully contributing anything to the discussion.
There was even a time when even our teacher found herself stuck while we were all attempting to solve a problem. Then Max spoke up, pointed to the board and solved the problem with a very elaborate explanation that came from beyond the bibliography used in the course. I was very impressed.
So, I found a way to talk to Max after class. I asked him how he knew so much. He told me that back in high-school, he wondered why teachers stopped simply at just telling them the basic things. He on the other hand, wanted to know more. So, he taught himself by reading on the topics teacher’s would not discuss anymore. This enabled him to form certain a certain worldview not everyone would probably understand. But he explained things to me better than how I could ever explain them. I asked him if his friends shared his convictions and he told me that he was more or less on his own. I asked him why he chose the more difficult path of finding answers and even thinking differently. His response to this question summed up all that I have forgotten but were once important to me. He said, “Well, school taught me more than knowledge. It formed me to have a sense of concern for others and to seek for social justice. Many of my friends have decided to leave this behind; I just chose to take this commitment seriously.”
My insecurity turned to humble admiration. I realized that I became too preoccupied with wanting to prove myself, and even maintaining a reputation. This caused me to feel insecure about my former student seeing me have a difficult time. And this insecurity enslaved me. But all the while it was I who failed to understand the real reason we were there. Max re-taught me school’s most important lesson. Appreciating how much I can learn from another person rather than wishing to prove that I know more is the point of learning.