Thursday, March 24, 2011
Lessons Given, Lessons Learned
Every time I slice open an orange, I think of my friend Raul. I was at his house about to peel an orange one day when he said, “You want me to show you a cool way to cut an orange?” I nodded and he took the knife, sliced off the ends, cut it into three equal parts, flipped it up and then cut down the middle. “See?” he said. “Now you can just eat the slices.”
He handed me the knife and watched me do it. Then we stood in the cool of the kitchen, eating orange slices and talking about life. I have not eaten an orange any other way since that day.
When I was eight years old my grandmother showed me how to make a bed. She stood across the bed and floated the sheet out my way. I caught it and listened to her instructions and watched her hands as she went through it with me step-by-step. Her voice was full of confidence in me as I fumbled with the corners.
In the last step she and I karate-chopped the comforter under the pillows, laughter erupting from both of us. She smiled at me, put her hands on her hips and said, “Now that’s the way you make a bed!”
It was my freshman year in college and I was overwhelmed. I was in the library of the university, a building bigger than my entire high school, trying to do research for a paper. In my high school the library had been a small room, with very few reference books. I had absolutely no idea how to find information in the library. (No computers, no Google, no data bases at this time, children!) I stood on the fourth floor of the library. Shelf after shelf after shelf of reference books towered above me. Then, Karla, a girl from a small town near mine appeared. She asked me what I was doing. I explained. She put down her books and showed me how to use the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature and then how to find the magazines in the library’s stacks. After about thirty minutes, I sat at one of the library’s broad tables, surrounded by riches in the form of books and magazines.
Karla nonchalantly said goodbye and disappeared, as I sat dazed and astounded. She had unlocked a golden door for me and then had given me the key.
We go through our formative years surrounded by those whose role it is to teach us. Parents, coaches, educators, tutors and trainers all set about to teach us how to operate in the world. Their role is understood and so is ours. We go to them to learn something and they teach it. It is a somewhat formal dance, set to an old music, full of rules, conventions, and obligations to one another.
However, there are also those magic moments in life when we are in the right place at the right time and someone steps forward and takes the time to teach us something new or different. The lesson can take thirty seconds or last hours; the experience can be simple and silly or life-changing. The formal role of teacher/student does not exist in these exchanges. One person offers a hand to another and the dance begins. It is an informal dance full of improvisation, a freestyle jig, a happy give-and-take of steps.
I have lost track of my friend Karla, but when I go to the library and run my eyes over the books on the shelf, I smile and think of her. Just when I needed it, she gave this small town girl a way to conquer the bigger world and to discover even larger universes.
When I make my bed and smooth over the sheets, it is my grandmother’s hands I see. I hear her voice at the end of the process “Now that’s the way to make a bed!” and I thank her for giving that shy, insecure eight year-old the time and attention she so desperately needed.
Raul is gone now. My friend died after a battle with cancer. I watched him as he battled with, and then accepted his fate with grace and dignity.
I’d like to thank him for his small gesture of friendship that has come to symbolize so much. I cup my hands around an orange and desperately wish that he could be here now, talking about life and eating oranges with me.
I know I can’t thank him now, so I do the next best thing. I watch for friends fumbling with oranges and I say, “Hey, do you want me to show you a really cool way to cut that?”
And the dance begins….