The Faces of Peace
A teacher shares some of the lessons in human compassion and understanding he has learned from his international students
By Scott Branks del Llano

From the December 2000 AAHE Bulletin

An excerpt from To Teach with Soft Eyes: Reflections on a Teacher/Leader

 


Every time another war breaks out, I find myself pulling out my Hair, Joan Baez, and Bruce Cockburn albums in a sort of recreational and nostalgic passive protest. It helps me cope. At six years old, as the Age of Aquarius was dawning, and for many years to follow, I genuinely believed that "peace would guide the planets and love would steer the stars." Our earth’s course has diverged a bit since then, but I still find myself a relentless peace-seeker. It is one thing that has remained consistent in me. So it seems natural that I now work with international students, new immigrants, and refugees from virtually every corner of the planet. For many years the lessons of harmony, understanding, and peace have been at the heart of my interaction with these students.

The teacher formation work of Parker Palmer [senior advisor for the Center for Teacher Formation and a highly respected writer and traveling teacher who works independently on issues in education, community, spirituality, and social change], the Fetzer Institute, and the community at Richland College holds at its core the vital importance of deep inner exploration and the emergence of the authentic self in teaching and learning. One exercise, which has become a daily ritual for me, is a centering guided meditation. For years I have loved the peace prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi. It resonates with my inner desires for my teaching and the work of cultural exchange to be an "instrument of peace." When I am able, I enter my classroom and sit quietly to speak this prayer to myself as the students hurry in bringing with them their anxiety, discoveries, homesickness, and dreams. I ask the students to spend some reflective time, often using music or silence.

A magical transformation unfolds within the silence and slowed pace. The students find a space and a freedom in which to openly and honestly voice their stories, a process demonstrating the value of allowing those issues that really move us all to become a part of our class time. The moments that strike me as the most poignant teaching/learning encounters are really those that humbled and silenced me as a teacher and demanded attentive listening to the students. The stories that have emerged are profound lessons in the depth of human connection and understanding. It is these stories of courage and hope over the years that embody the truths within this simple peace prayer and lead to the very face of peace.

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace . . . Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Ahmad (fictitious names used throughout) was a young engineering student from Iraq whose immense courage and grace moved hundreds of those around him. I remember with chilling clarity the night I had to pull him from class to inform him that his home city of Baghdad was being bombed. For weeks, he had no way of knowing how or where his parents were. In the midst of his pain, he decided to share his struggle very openly with the campus. To many individuals who only saw the Gulf War as a sort of televised video game of strategically guided "smart" bombs, Ahmad brought a startling heart and soul to the war. For those to whom Iraq was a hated enemy nation of maniacal Saddam Husseins, Ahmad brought quite another face to mind. The more he shared, the more others broke down their own barriers to turn a face toward peace. Ahmad was their good friend, and their love for him transformed blind hatred.

Where there is injury, pardon;

Lily, a student from Bosnia, was learning English. Her oral communications class was a giant challenge for her as she faced her terror of speaking before a group. Paramount in this fear was the obstacle of having no arms; an exploding shell during the war in Bosnia had blown them off. As she braved her first speech, an overwhelming radiance and the powerful expression of her face, eyes, and voice replaced Lily’s nervousness. She delivered her message with great conviction and strength. The speech peer-evaluation forms contain the category of effective expression through gestures and nonverbal communication. I could sense her classmates squirming to give appropriate feedback when one of them suddenly blurted out that Lily didn’t even need hand gestures because her eyes and face spoke with such unbelievable expression. Exactly! Tears and raucous applause ensued. A very gracious healing had occurred for all of us, especially for Lily.

Where there is doubt, faith;

Ismael was not sure if he would be able to fulfill his dream of completing a degree in computer science. Political and economic chaos was threatening his family, who struggled to support him from El Salvador. Despite his constant preoccupation with his family’s safety and his own fight to make ends meet through long hours of extra work, Ismael maintained a 4.0 grade average and won competitive scholarships to support his learning. Within a year, he was teaching computer skills to Spanish speakers in the community, and computer agencies began to pursue him for his expertise and bilingual skills. Never losing his belief that he would succeed, Ismael graduated from a prestigious university this year.

Where there is despair, hope;

Andre walked into my office and into my life one day and has remained forever a hero of mine. His entire family was killed during the senseless and bloody massacres in Rwanda. Andre, on a student visa, was left totally on his own, as his family was his only source of support for his studies in the United States. He had no home or country to return to, as his tribe, the Tutsi, had become the tragic victims of genocide. As Andre revealed his story, the entire community came to his aid with free housing, legal assistance to secure temporary protected status, a scholarship fund in his name that within weeks covered his entire year’s tuition, and a network of friends and supporters to hold Andre during the gruesome months of pain that followed. Andre gained permanent residency, completed his studies, and went on to graduate school bolstered by his profound inner strength and a community that cared deeply for him.

Where there is darkness, light;

The student stories are numerous and poignant. Anh from Vietnam supports her entire family, none of whom knows English. She goes home from class each night to teach them all she learns and manages the family restaurant. Katia from Belgrade, Yugoslavia, feared for her family every day during the war, but she never missed a class or an assignment. Her classmates rallied around her every day with their compassion and concern. They have become her family. These are the stories of hundreds, thousands of students every day whose lives touch and illuminate our own paths to understanding. They are stories of great courage, of misplaced lives, the struggle to fit in, the horror of war and economic ruin, and the need for healing human connection.

Where there is sadness, joy.

I came to the United States when I was 17 and, like many of my students, struggled with my own marginality and cultural adjustment. I lost two homes to civil unrest and the political upheaval and violence in Colombia, my homeland. Several of my friends and mentors were kidnapped and some killed by guerrilla groups seeking to gain power. Others were lost to the lure of drug trafficking. My family was finally forced to evacuate. For years I have anguished to find a place to call home. The core of joy and hope in my heart was gravely threatened, and I could not find a way to peace or wholeness. I owe a huge debt to my students who have helped me see that the very thing I feared Ñ revealing my story Ñ was the vehicle for healing. For years I had witnessed this raw and open honesty of personal story at work and its transforming power. Playing the advocate and healer of my students’ collective tragic story had allowed me to bury my own heartache and take on theirs. Terrified to dive inward and do the deep soul work I needed to do, I was afraid that I would break apart.

For it is in giving that we receive.

Ahmad, Lily, Ismael, Andre, and countless other students courageously moved into their own intense pain and entrusted it to the hands and hearts of others, and in so doing, found a miraculous peace. My epiphany finally hit through the gracious example of my students when I discovered the unmistakable connection between their stories and my own. I now find day-to-day teaching is a place for the truly genuine, a place to reach healing in solidarity with the whole frail human condition. As Parker Palmer puts it, "Bad teachers distance themselves from their subjects and students," while good teachers "join self and subject and students in the fabric of life." Without students truly knowing me, how can there be community? Parker also states that knowing is always communal. "Community is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace, the flowing of personal identity and integrity into the work of relationships. Only as we are in community with ourselves can we find community with others." The students embody this communion for me and have become an integral part of my path toward healing.

I am still passionate about peace. The lives of my students daily bring me face-to-face with a world desperately in need of it. Finding the courage to offer up our own stories and to expose our pain, joy, and tears brings great healing and true peace. As Saint Francis’s prayer states, in giving we receive. Giving of ourselves. Eventually the divergent patterns of our lives combine in a full integration of body, mind, and spirit, and the ironies begin to make sense. At times we do a lot of splashing on the surface, then we are forced to surrender, dive deep down into our inner ocean, and find a quintessential stability there. It is a sacred space. As I look deeply into the faces of so many others seeking this same peace, I see the diverse patterns of unique experience and intense struggle align into a common light, and I suddenly recognize my own face staring back at me, calling me to peace.


To Teach with Soft Eyes: Reflections on a Teacher/Leader Formation Experience, edited by Rica Gardia, is published by Richland College and the League for Innovation in the Community College. To order, contact the League at 949/367-2884, or see www.leaguestore.org.

(Click here to read a review of this book.)

Scott Branks del Llano is a faculty member in the World Languages, Culture, and Communications Division at Richland College, Texas. Contact him at sbranks@dccd.edu.



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