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Larry Efird: Becoming human

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Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.

Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.

During the past year I discovered a new author whom I’ve come to love. His name is Jean Vanier, a Catholic philosopher and humanitarian who started an international ministry for those with intellectual disabilities. He’s one of those gifted writers who speaks from the depths of his own heart to the hearts of his readers.

In the first book I read by Vanier, one quote almost jumped off the page: “Fear is always behind the need to persecute.” Simply stated, that’s a mouthful — so much so that I took that quote and used it for one of my daily focuses with my students. They had no trouble at all connecting it to the types of thinking and actions they see all around them, from bullying in schools to bullying in politics.

I kept coming across Jean Vanier’s name in other books I was reading, and the title of one, “Becoming Human,” kept appearing randomly. I took that as a sign that maybe I should read it. The title alone is more than appropriate for teachers; after all, who hasn’t wondered if at least one teacher he or she has had over the years was human or not? And I’m sure if some of my own students saw this book on my desk, they would see it as confirmation that their prayers had been answered — especially those from my earliest years of teaching when school officials used to tell us not to smile until after Thanksgiving.

Fortunately, that ill-advised philosophy has gone by the wayside, but I can still remember when I was a new teacher counting the weeks until I could “be human” with my students for the rest of the year. I must have had a slip-up one day and smiled, because one of my students told the school secretary that “Mr. Efird smiled in class.” She made sure to tell me that the word was out!

That seems so long ago and unreal to me now, but “becoming human” with students is not as easy as it sounds, especially with a class that is difficult to manage. In those cases, some students won’t allow a teacher to be himself or herself, because they can use it to their advantage. In addition, there’s always the imaginary line of becoming “too familiar” with students, when the lines of being a friend and a teacher can become blurred. These are things every teacher has to learn pretty much from experience. Unfortunately, simply reading a book about teacher/student relationships isn’t enough. It’s much like learning how to swim: knowing the proper technique is one thing, but actually swimming across the pool by yourself is another.

Jean Vanier wrote an entire book about “becoming human.” In it, he tries to let his readers in on the secret of how to open yourself up to others while building trust so that they will reciprocate. He says that the intellectually challenged are much more honest than the rest of us because they’ve never had to conform to the world’s idea of trying to appear successful and trying to let everyone else think that they have it all together. The truth is that no one has it all together, not even teachers. Who hasn’t learned the hard way that trying to cover up a mistake is fatal? There’s always someone who can smell vulnerability and our futile attempt to hide our flaws. I’ve found that students actually appreciate my flaws more when I can laugh at my mistakes, rather than when I try to camouflage them.

Vanier gives the following seasoned advice to his readers. “Our personalities deepen and grow as we live in openness and respect for others, when weakness is listened to and the weak are empowered, that is to say, when people are helped to be truly themselves, to own their lives and discover their capacity to give life to others. Fear closes us down; love opens us up.” Becoming human is a process, but for any teacher to have a chance at helping his or her students, it’s absolutely essential. Rather than weakly conceding, “we’re only human” to cover our mistakes, maybe we should be saying, “we’re glad to be human,” if we can help someone else.

Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.

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