Very soon after finding my feet at the front of a class instead of sitting in a desk I quickly realized, teachers are students, and students are teachers.
In the beginning I learned through mistakes, insights into human behavior, flashbacks to my own childhood, the uniqueness and shared traits of individuals. I witnessed profound brilliance and suffering swirling in youths doing their desperate best to navigate the rapids of life. They were braver than they understood, like baby birds leaping from dangerously high nests. Out of everything, one thing I learned stands out.
It happened while teaching for a traveling nonprofit around New Zealand. Everyday I met new people new faces, sometimes dozens sometimes hundreds. One day a group of around 100 students filed into a large hall and sat down. The chatter of dozens of voices blended and filled the room. I had a few rare moments of nothing to do while waiting to start a lesson. I decided to try a meditation technique on contemplating loving kindness.
I started thinking about how everyone I care about was once a young kid in a crowd at school. My mother, my father, my best friends, all once a face in a crowd of kids. I thought about how each person in the room is a member of a family. Each person is unfathomably loved, and each person will one day die, and be deeply mourned as something irreplaceable.
Warmth welled up inside me. It felt like the kind of love which arises in memories of the past that cannot be returned to. Memories of simple everyday things which at the time seemed mundane, but in retrospect appear priceless, beautiful, and profound. Some call this romanticizing the past, but I believe more often than romanticizing it is simply seeing clearly. All the worries and problems back then worked themselves out and disappeared as the temporary and unstable phenomena they were. What remains is love which is so often obscured by the complexities of life, like a canopy of branches blocking the sun. Before walking in front of the students I felt this hindsight love in the present and genuine compassion for the group of strangers in the room.
I introduced myself and began to speak about science, something bizarre happened among the group of teenagers. The room fell completely silent. Everywhere I looked, all eyes were fixed directly on mine. After the lesson, a noticeably higher number of people thanked me and said goodbye as they left.
In the following days, weeks, months, and years the silence of crowds taught me this was not a fluke. No matter whether the students were five, ten, teenagers, or adults if I could connect to genuine compassion the room went silent.
I hope you can recall a favorite teacher in your mind. You likely can’t remember a single thing they taught, but I bet you can remember the feeling of being cared for without reason, of feeling seen and valuable.
I invite you to experiment. Conjure compassion for someone before speaking to them and hold it while do you, both while you listen and while you speak. Then watch what happens. Is it easiest to do with friends, family, or strangers? You might be surprised. Why? What I am certain of through these experiences, is compassion is felt and understood by a place beneath language. What gives me hope, is this practice does not seem to have an end.