We Teach

It was a day like any other. Except that it wasn’t. I had the radio on while I was getting ready for work. Just like I always did. What I heard that morning compelled me to turn on the television. Something I never did.
American planes, carrying American passengers, over American cities were turned into bombs by foreign agents. I saw the footage. I heard the soundbites. I couldn’t comprehend.
I walked to my office just like I did every morning. My assistant had her desk in the reception area. She liked being in the center of action; I obliged by letting her sit right at the entrance to the office. On this day, she found a small TV and set it up on the reception counter. I said nothing. She needed other co-workers to gather near her. I couldn’t handle one more sound bite. Not one more image.
I went to directly to my office. I had no words. After a while, I went down one floor to visit with some of my employees. Personnel staff, accountants and finance analysts, IT workers, payroll processors… they pulled their chairs from offices and cubicles and we sat in a circle. They talked and I listened. When it seemed they were ready, each went back to their desk to attempt whatever work they might get done that day.
I went back upstairs to my office. I called other employees who were stationed in satellite offices around the city. Small offices staffed with one or two employees. Most of them were alone. I listened to whomever wanted to come to the phone that morning. I heard fear and confusion mixed with relief and appreciation. They were glad I called. I was glad I listened.
After a short while, I went up the street to City Hall. There, a small cadre of customer service reps were pretending to work the citywide service desk. Usually, the service counter was busy with citizens who needed a problem solved or a complaint heard. Not today. Usually, the phones were a constant jangle of ringing bells as people called to find out where or how they could be heard, and by whom. Not today. If someone walked in demanding to see the Mayor, it was my staff they talked with first. Not today. All was quiet. All was still. No one came. No one called. We gathered our chairs around and they talked. I listened. I still had no words.
Finally, the very long work day ended. For once, I didn’t stay late. On my walk home, I stopped to buy a newspaper, just like I always did. The man who sold me my evening newspaper wore clothes that might have come to him third hand. He had very bad teeth and very kind eyes. He did honest work by selling the daily newspaper. He bought them in the morning at a slight discount and re-sold them in the afternoon at the newsstand price.
For some reason, I was ready to talk. To a stranger. I looked into his deep brown eyes and I spoke my thoughts out loud, “I don’t know what to do.” I told him. He looked back at me, and very steadily he replied, “We teach. We teach.”
I don’t know if he meant we teach third graders to be inclusive. Or, maybe he meant we should re-introduce the humanities into our high school and college curriculum. Perhaps he meant we should run yet another diversity training program. It didn’t matter because in that minute, based on two words uttered twice, I know I became a better person. My way of teaching would simply become the way I would show up from that day forward.
Teaching does not have to be defined as one person, one expert, standing in the center of the room. Teaching can be demonstrated by the way we behave. What we model. Who we are and what we value. Or share. Or say. Or do.
On that day, in that moment, I became a better listener, a more thoughtful influencer. Kinder. More patient. More tolerant. Thanks to a man who took time to hear me. A man who let me struggle to speak. And answered me when I did. My street corner philosopher.
Since that September day in 2001, the way I show up is the way I teach. Because what we say and what we do is what we teach. How we say it. How we do it. That is what and how we teach.
I ask you to please notice the way you show up. In your neighborhood. In your workplace. With your kids or grandkids. At your bowling league or at the grocery store. At home or away from home. What are you teaching?
Let the way you show up. Let who you are. Be what you teach. Because, every day in every way, you and I – we teach. We teach.