How to Learn from Those You Intend to Teach

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Evgeny Sergeev / Thinkstock

In my volunteer work, teaching people living in a subsidized housing complex some basic cooking skills, I run across many people from varied backgrounds and with a huge variance in ability. Before joining the cooking class, I meet with each person for about a half hour and chat with them about the program, about what they like to eat, any allergies or food preferences, and generally get a feel for who they are and a sense of their abilities.

It’s really helpful for me to know a bit about them before they show up to cook with me. Some of the people I teach have physical limitations, some have cognitive disabilities, and some are so bright and engaging one wonders why their lives have been so bumpy. I have gone from conversations where I have had to gently guide the future cooking student through my questions, to conversations about politics, neuroplasticity and one where the petite, harmless-looking resident assured me her murder charge was unfair because she’d only loaded the gun and not fired it. I have learned never to judge the proverbial book by its cover.

One case in which I made some erroneous snap judgements involves two brothers. The first brother (I’ll call him Hugh) is friendly and sweet, but not particularly bright. He attended several classes, needed lots of help to navigate the recipes, and was happy to let others do his share of the cleanup until I caught on and gently prodded him to help. He did so willingly when asked. He told me that he and his brother had lived on the streets for several years after their mother died; when she went so did their housing.

I shuddered, thinking of this trusting, naive young man navigating homelessness, and hoped he hadn’t been taken advantage of or treated badly. One day, he came to me and excitedly told me his brother had been able to obtain a unit in the building and would soon be moving in. Would there be a spot in the cooking program for Donnie? A few days later, Hugh proudly introduced me to Donnie, and at Donnie’s insistence sat in on the pre-cooking interview. The two were hilarious.

Donnie was nearly as wide as he was tall, jaundiced looking and had the dull gaze of someone with a very low IQ. However, he was friendly and happy, smiling constantly. Hugh answered Donnie’s questions for him, smiled encouragingly at his brother throughout the time we spent together and was incredibly solicitous of him. When I asked Donnie if he has any food sensitivities he immediately answered, “Don’t give me celery. It goes right through me. Right through me.” Hugh nodded and said, “Oh yeah. Right through him.” Donnie, in case I hadn’t caught on, repeated, “Yeah, right through me.” I bit my cheek to keep from laughing and typed away on my laptop. Check. No celery.

When I asked which brother was older there was a furtive glance and an awkward pause. I had just been making conversation and trying to be friendly, but clearly I had said something wrong. After a moment Hugh spoke up and said, “We’re not actually brothers.” Donnie nodded. Hugh again, “We’re street brothers.” I nodded and said, probably too brightly, “Oh, so you have different parents, but you’re super good friends and as close as brothers. I get it.” Hugh looked relieved, shared a loaded look with Donnie, and said, “That’s it.”

A realization sank in and my stomach lurched. These two young men, neither very bright or very handsome, had lived together, supported one another and probably defended one another while they were homeless. They were both terrifyingly vulnerable, and I silently thanked God they had one another, while wondering what horrors they had shared. They clearly adored one another. Brothers seems hardly close enough to describe the bond.

A few days later, I was getting ready to drive people from the building to the local Food Bank. I arrived at the pickup spot, and three of those waiting were Hugh, Donnie, and a very rough-looking woman. I hopped out of the van, said hello, and asked who was coming with me. Turns out Donnie was going, and the scary-looking woman was his wife. I’d hide if I met her after dark, but again, I was judging, and again, I was mistaken. She helped Donnie into the van, fastened his seat belt, tenderly kissed his grizzled cheek and told him to call her when he got back so she could help him unpack his groceries. She turned to me and proudly said, “My husband. Ten years. Common law.” Again, this was a bit of over sharing—I didn’t need to know the arrangements. But also, again, I felt shock. His wife?

I looked at Hugh the first time I met him and made assumptions about the quality of his life and his ability to love. I met Donnie and made the same ignorant assumptions. If that’s not bad enough, I looked at Donnie’s wife and made some assumptions about her. Then, I watched her treat Donnie with exquisite tenderness. I saw Hugh smiling broadly at his brother, pleased as punch they’re together.

This little threesome, who many of us would walk past and either silently mock or ignore, have a good thing going. They love one another, help one another, and are proud of one another. I am thoroughly ashamed to admit that I met the men and never assumed they would be capable of building a loving, caring community for themselves. I know better—or at least I thought I did. But somehow I thought that I, with my safe, educated little life, would be good at building community while these simple, homely, unsophisticated folks couldn’t do the same.

A year ago, God asked me to leave my job and to serve the people who live in this apartment building. Everyone assumes it’s because I have something to teach them. I know that’s only partly true. What people don’t know is how much God is teaching me, through them. The prejudices and attitudes I hardly knew existed are suddenly being exposed, tested and found to be a lie. I am realizing how unlovely I can be. I’m ashamed of the things I’m realizing about myself, and grateful to God for showing me how far I am from his ideals for me.

I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.
Matthew 25:40

We all know these words from Matthew, and I started this endeavor believing I was serving “the least of these.” I am no longer certain who is “the least.”

Karen Vine is a regular contributor to Soul Care Collective. Thanks, Karen!

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