Teachable Moments, Part 3

Happy New Year, everyone. I hope that 2013 brings all of us good health, good fortune, and the peace of mind in knowing that we did our best to become the best we are capable of becoming. May each day be our latest masterpiece.

Well, it's a good thing that contributing BruinsNation Fanposts is not a paid position, or I would have been fired a long time ago. It will have been one year, this month, since part 1 and part 2 of this series appeared on BN. In some measure, the delay in posting part 3 of this series is due to my inability to grapple a very large topic into something fanpost-size, and to say something coherent that does the topic justice. But, this explanation could fairly be described as a self-justifying excuse. It could also be that I’m just slow and lazy. In any case, I apologize for dragging this out.

Both this part of the series and the final installment (part 4, to come later in January) concern personal, teachable moments. I hope that my personal moment-airing is not off-putting to readers. In wanting to discuss vivid examples, I went with those examples that I knew best. It won’t be until part 4 that I get around to tying the subject to UCLA, but I will. I promise.

It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that I’ve been thinking about the topic of teachable moments ever since posting parts 1 and 2. Such is my fascination with those moments that can come and go without warning, and often pass you by, undetected, like a distant whisper. When they are not recognized, not seized, or are otherwise passed over, teachable moments uneventfully blend in with the now, much as a burst soap bubble coalesces with the air in which it had been floating, just an instant before.

And yet, when seized, these same whispers can shout at you as through a bull-horn. They stop you in your tracks. They hit you between the eyes. Suddenly, nerves tingling, you understand. Or, abruptly, you realize that you’ve been going about it all wrong until now. Or, hair standing on end, you hear something wise that you know, somehow, to be primal truth, and yet do not yet have the life experience to understand. Something clicks. Something, somehow, lands in your lap, and quite quickly and possibly involuntarily, changes the course of your life.

When they are seized and imparted by a courageous and wise teacher, teachable moments become permanent lighthouses in your life’s voyage, forever guiding, advising, steadying, and inspiring you. Absorbed teachable moments don't just shape character; they also contribute to identity. Absorbed teachable moments become part of who you are.

An example of such a moment that occurred in my life found me in a high school Science class. No, it wasn’t “Chemistry” or “Biology” or “Physics;” just “Science,” all rolled into one. We had a more simplistic and consolidated world view back then, apparently. Anyway, my Science teacher was a young man, in his late twenties or early thirties, with an athletic build and youthful personality. He had short, light brown hair, worn in a neat, cropped, near-military hairdo of the times (early 1960s). I do not remember a single thing that he tried to teach me about science. I do not even remember his name.

And, yet, he gave me a life-changing lesson that I remember to this day, as though it had occurred yesterday. The incident occurred quite by accident. He wasn’t trying to teach, and the subject wasn’t even science. He was just speaking his mind.

During a pause in his presentation, a student made an unintentionally loud comment about smoking. At the time, having been seduced into thinking that smoking was a hip thing to do, by the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson and Katherine Hepburn, entire generations of Americans had bought in. Smoking got you girls, or showed men you were chic. Smoking showed people you were wise and scholarly. Smoking solved crimes, created inspiration, and won wars. Smoking wasn’t a vice. It was a silver-screen- worthy pursuit of glamour, a university-worthy pursuit of intellect.

Smoking wasn’t particularly commonplace among kids in my high school, but it certainly was among their parents, and smoking was ridiculously ubiquitous in movies and advertising. So, we kids couldn’t help but notice all this puffing going on, and see ourselves following smoky paths in life. There was much less awareness of the health hazards of smoking in those days. There were no warnings on cigarette packs. The tobacco industry told us that nicotine was not habit-forming, and that tobacco was a deserved, soothing reward for having navigated the obstacles in life. And, the industry, unmistakably and repeatedly, told us, directly and indirectly, that smoking was cool.

My teacher overheard the student’s comment about smoking. He halted, in mid-sentence, whatever science lesson he was teaching at the time. He paused, as though lost in thought. He turned from the blackboard (yes, a heavy, black slate board, with a narrow tray of dusty white chalk and gray felt erasers at the bottom), and faced the class. He put his hands on the lab table, looked up, and spoke. He spoke in a normal volume, and had a tone of curious wonder, not of anger or exasperation or personal rant. He said, “You know, I don’t get smoking. You take some some dried leaves. You roll ‘em up in tissue paper, you light them on fire, and you suck in the smoke. Why? What for? What is the purpose of that? It can’t do you any good. How is that smart? I just don’t get it.” He shook his head several times, turned back to the black board, sighed, and resumed the science lesson. I doubt he knew whom he had overheard.

I may have been the only student in the class to be struck by this remark, but it hit me like a runaway train. I knew, intellectually, what cigarettes were. I knew they were dried leaves and paper. I knew that cigarettes cost money. There was no new information here. And yet, right up until that moment, I hadn’t realized that I could question, not just the practice, but the very idea of smoking. In that one, startling moment, my teacher had given me a view of the subject that put things in focus for me. He thereby gave me backbone.

I tried one cigarette on my own after that, a Marlboro I think, and confirmed to myself that smoking was not for me. Outside of occasional celebratory puffs on It’s-a-Boy!/It’s-a-Girl! cigars, I have resisted tobacco ever since. And, thanks to my freshman high school Science teacher, it has been an easy resistance. One chance remark, and I was given immunity to the hip imagery of smoking in movies, in advertising, and in life. That, to me, was one fine and incalculably valuable teachable moment. It remains burned into my brain to this day. Thank you, Mr. X.

The credentials and motivations of the teachable-moment seizer don’t seem to matter. It may be a college professor, a spiritual leader, a fry cook, an innocent child, a football coach, a drill sergeant, a hot dog street vendor, a janitor. Your teachable moment can come from a friend and mentor, someone who recognizes your youth and/or inexperience, and endeavors to teach you a valuable lesson. Sometimes, your teacher is an adversary, and is out to get your ass. And, sometimes, your teacher doesn’t even know you exist.

Teachable moments are unpredictable. You don’t know when the next one will come or what the lesson will be. You don’t know if your lesson will be delivered by another person, a burning candle, a playful kitten, a Hubble photograph, an impressionist painting, a drip of oil, a clump of moss, or whether you will have a flash of insight all on your own. You don’t know if the lesson will come from the topic at hand, or whether it will have nothing, whatsoever, to do with your current activity. You don’t know if a future teachable moment will be an uplifting inspiration, an incidental amusement, or a cold, hard slap in the face.

You can’t know if your next lesson will come by design or by happenstance. You remain oblivious to whether it will arrive in person, by mail, from a podcast, or on TV. You don’t know if your next TM will contribute to your wisdom, your humor, your calm, your athletic prowess, your clarity of thought, your ability to learn, or your perception of life. And, you don’t even know if you will be the receiver of a TM, or the deliverer.

It is on this last point that I would like to begin leading into part 4 of the series—on being the teacher. It is easy to be a student of teachable moments. You don’t have to study or prepare for them. You generally don’t ask for them, though you can, and you can certainly be open to them, or not. But, usually, for students, teachable moments just happen, on their own time, for their own purposes.

For teachers, though, teaching moments can be the product of studied planning and perceptive awareness. Good teachers are on enduring lookout for teachable moments. They recognize what it is that their students have not yet learned, or have learned incorrectly, and they prepare for the best ways to deliver lessons. Good teachers anticipate teachable moments, and are thus ready when those moments occur.

Good teachers need not be credentialed professionals, of course. They occur in all professions and in all cultures. Whatever their profession or capacity, good teachers are worth their weight in gold. They are in positions to mold young minds and to influence young lives. They help students to learn what is inside themselves, to find their own compasses. Good teachers give students life-navigation skills that they will use for the rest of their lives.

Such benevolent, inspiring teachers are not common. It takes a special person to be grounded in reality and, yet, to be ready and willing to help their students soar with eagles. This is why I am so appreciative of and grateful to those teachers who have instilled precious life lessons in me. I could write forever on the useful and valuable lessons that I learned from my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors, teachers and coaches. This is also why I so regret wasting those teachable moments that have eluded me, as a teacher, with my own children. I know, first-hand, the value of teachable moments, so I know what is lost when they are squandered.

Once in a great while, if one is especially fortunate, one runs across a really special teacher. Really special teachers live lives of selfless wisdom and inspirational example. Really special teachers don’t just bestow wise words on you; they show you exactly what they’re trying to convey by living the lesson, themselves. Really special teachers don’t just espouse lessons; they embody them. In this way, really special teachers don’t have to be expressly teaching in order to teach you. They merely have to be themselves. Such a teacher was John Robert Wooden.

In part 4, I will discuss another personal teaching moment that found me by way of a seventeen-inch, black-and-white Zenith TV. This lesson was delivered by Coach Wooden. Part 4 is timed to coincide with the forty-fifth anniversary of this vividly memorable moment that occurred while I was a senior at UCLA. Not coincidentally, the anniversary is also that of a history-making event.

Final Note
: In this post, I write of my personal journey with smoking. While my wife and I did what we could to discourage smoking in our children, I am not a crusader. If you tell me that you’re a smoker and glad of it, I would hope that my reaction would be similar to Mr. X’s—namely, curious puzzlement, rather than judgment.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of BruinsNation's (BN) editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of BN's editors.