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THE ECOLOGY OF TEACHING

Learning By Hand

By HECTOR J. VILA, PhD

hector vilaHector J. Vila is an Assistant Professor in Writing at Middlebury College in Vermont. He has been teaching writing in urban and rural environments since 1985. Hector is the author of
Life-Affirming Acts: Education as Transformation in the Writing Classroom. Throughout his career he has always worked, in one way or another, with K-12 partners. Hector is a regular essayist for Community Works Journal.

He said it just like this: "Yo, brother Hector, why don't you take me under your wing?"

He said it just like that at the end of one of our final classes of the semester. He reached over with his right hand and placed it in mine, and swung his left arm over and embraced me—we embraced.

"Yeah, brother Hector. Mentor me," he insisted softly. "Mentor me. Why don't you mentor me? Yeah, I'm serious. Take me under your wing," he said with a pleasant, endearing grin. Mentor—having the form of an agent. Latin, monitor—to remember, think, counsel. The name of the Ithacan noble whose disguise the goddess Athene assumed in order to act as the guide and adviser of the young Telemachus; allusively, one who fulfills the office which the supposed Mentor fulfilled towards Telemachus—hence a common noun: An experienced and trusted counselor. Thank you OED.

I've been grappling with this word ever since I first heard it in conjunction with my name. The weight of it—the history, the expectations. Homer's Odyssey, for god's sake. How do you fit into those shoes? Kids don't know the gravity of their questions, the load.

The most difficult challenge for me has been taking jurisdiction over myself and moving my entire being—my sense of self -- into feeling that I fit in, anywhere, any time and under any circumstance. Why don't you take me under your wing? clung to my conscience, a hallowed white wing, outstretched, soft, protective. And I'm looking down on it, spread out over the student's head, carefully drawing him in, just a wing, an allusive one at that, referencing something implied, as in a life, your life, the student's life.

Adaptation One. Hands. It was -13 C (9F) the other morning when I did chores—moving sheep from one paddock to the next to continue grazing on fresh grasses even in December, feeding chickens and cleaning their coop, and bottle feeding Sandy, the two-month old Jersey steer, cleaning the barn, leveling the water. They depend on me, I on them. If their lives are good, mine will be too.

If the lives of my students are good, fulfilling, creative lives full of promise -- mine will be too. It's a law of the universe, unspoken but true. This kind of interdependence feeds adaptation, nurtures it. Adaptation requires abandonment, letting go of some aspect of yourself; it's essential for evolution, for evolving.

Sunlight was barely pushing through weighty blue-gray clouds that morning. The still visible full moon waned. It was going to stay cold. All the signs were there.

I pulled open the barn door, Sandy's bottle cradled in my left arm. Steam rose from my nostrils when I got out a push and my back creaked a bit down my left side to my waist; a stiffness in a shoulder. The chickens fluttered, jumping off bales of hay. The roosters that sounded off at 4:30 that morning and made me stir turned and faced me with dignified, proud looks, heads raised. I knew exactly where I was, what things would be like on this day because of the way things felt in the barn. I keep time with these creatures—they give me time. It's a better idea, a better feeling to know where you are, what you need to do and why.

I set out across a tough earth for the paddock gate to move the sheep. An Arctic wind kicked up. It made me tear. When I got to the fence, I noticed that the earth's shift to freezing had leaned into a post and the top hinge of the gate had come off its back plate.The gate looked wounded, tired. It snowed a bit the night before, barely a cover -- but what had fallen near the gate had seized the bottom rung. The gate was frozen.

The sheep took two steps towards me. I faced them and they took two steps back. I pulled off my gloves so that I could get a better grip on the frozen fence and yanked until it broke lose and I could maneuver the hinge back on the back plate, holding the fence up with one hand, helping the hinge with the other. I had to bare knuckle whack the hinge a few times and in a couple of minutes I had the fence back on. I was winded. Nose running. A finger and a knuckle bled only a tiny bit and I knew, after I licked them, that in a few seconds my system—and the cold —would seal the cuts.

Would there be scars, a record of this event? I wondered.

I noticed my hands. Who is this performing these tasks? Who—or what—is the I in the I? Am I me or some aspect of me that is a part of the spectacle? Perhaps both. Who—or what—will give testimony to my being here? Hands move between reality and fiction, like phantoms.

Philosophers have spoken about the hands. In the documentary, derrida, Jacques Derrida says that what interests him about the eyes is that it's the part of the body that doesn't age. "In other words," says the French Philosopher, "if one looks for one's childhood, across the signs of aging in the body....one can find one's childhood in the look of the eyes...Hegel says that the eyes are the manifestation of the soul...But I translate this thought as follows: That one's act of looking has no age." As for the hand, "There is a history of the hand," says Derrida, "the evolution of man, what we call the hominization of the animal, occurs via the transformation of the hand. I think that it's not the body of the hand that stays the same, the hand changes from childhood to old age. It is the eye and the hands that are the sights of recognition, the signs through which one identifies the Other. To return to the question of narcissism, they are, paradoxically, the parts that we see the least easily. We can look in a mirror and see ourselves and have a reasonably accurate sense of what we look like. But it's very difficult to have an image of our own act of looking or to have a true image of our hands as they are moving. It's the Other who knows what our hands and eyes are like."

I look at hands, intensely, fascinated by them because they say a lot about a person's life, his or her beliefs. The phalanges of both my hands are bent in different directions, particularly the ring finger of my left hand -- and I can't tell you how this happened; the index finger of my right hand won't close all the way; and I have what's called a "boxer's break" in the carpal behind the pinky of my right hand, which happened when I was kneeling before my 6 month old warm blood and he took a step towards me and my pinky jammed up in his powerful chest and he broke it as I tried to hold him back. It's a break that often happens to boxers. I have what looks like a burn on my left hand, but it was really a saw I use to cut metal that brushed me; and I have a "V" scar there too, beneath it a steal pin holding my wrist together (this came from sports, not farming, another story).

The academic's hands have always intrigued me because they pose a problem: these soft, subtle hands, meant for turning pages, not digging ditches, have turned civilizations on their heads, named things, classified others, and in fact define what is evolving and how; they label progress; they determine right and wrong; they convict. Pardon. And they wash their hands of things they don't want to see. Such soft hands have so much authority. This troubles me. Can delicate hands teach?

Can a mentor have soft hands? Easy to mould, cut, compress?

Have we left the hand behind in our cultural adaptations? Those among us using their hands at ground level—this is where the hands live, after all, where they're necessary—how can we understand You, the Other, without become You, entering Your I as our own and abandoning the spectacle that is us? How do I speak to You if I'm not You, You who uses Your hands?

My journey: from what am I going to do with myself ? to the teacher and now to mentor, it's been impossible for me to feel good about the answers to these questions where and when I've been involved. I could have done better.

The other day, I received an email from a young colleague and friend I respect immensely. She wrote to me about her family's venture, a Wisconsin experiment with 50 grape vines. The family has been winterizing them over a few months, Thanksgiving closing off the project. They use chicken wire around the base and fill these with leaves. The chicken wire has to be strung around each of the 50 vines. She tells me that the "scratches and cuts are beginning to fade on my hands." I immediately fell totally in love with the "scratches and cuts," that beautiful image that eventually will "fade." Irresistible. I don't want them to "fade"—like an old photograph, a node in life's road. Her hands would be so lovely, I thought, with a hint of a few scars that named a passage about love and family and growth and beauty. And that, in its course, touched me with such melancholy, brushed against me like that and I ached at the thought of it fading. I had the same feeling when I first read John Keats's Ode to a Nightingale and came to Forlorn! the very word is like a bell/To toll me back from thee to my sole self! And then Keats says, Adieu!, which he repeats soon thereafter, Adieu! adieu! they plaintive anthem fades/Past the near meadows, over the still stream,/Up the hill-side ...

Fade, the scars fade but never really go away, do they? Do we all fade like this? Hands tell us our approximation to love, to life itself. Hands are better then pictures. Van Gogh's Two Hands. We learn nothing from Facebook, not really, because we leave the hands out. We leave hands out a lot these days—and most of the hands we see are either killing or keeping someone from harms way, embracing an Other who is suffering, distraught.  Follow the hands (where they're pictured, that is) in the 45 most powerful images of 2011 and tell me, what do you see hands doing? What do these hands say about our struggle to Be.

I remember my grandmother's hands. Worn, working hands. My hands have been compared to hers: round, strong, used—not the hands one associates with turning pages of a book. The problem of the hand is that it resides at ground-level—where hands actually work. Knowledge, economies of scale and technology have created an upside down model where the consumer economy is privileged over all else. Hominization without hands -- or is it with unseen hands, unacknowledged hands, hands we don't want to see? We believe that we are evolving differently and that the hand is somehow secondary. Soft hands have drawn this conclusion. Round and round soft hands go into carefully orchestrated meetings to discuss threats from different epistemologies. We meet to discuss how not to use our hands. We don't like dirt. We don't want to get our hands dirty.

Why don't you take me under your wing? Is this the right question, my brother student? For me to enter the I that is you, we need to be in each other's hands, spreading our wings together. This is adaptation.

Was it a vision, or a waking dream? We ultimately ask ourselves along with Keats. Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?   Hands always know the answer.

for Heather and Cheswayo


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