Just before the beginning of my second year of teaching in Beirut, the parents of one of my incoming students asked if they could meet with me before school began.
When we met they told me that, as professors at a prestigious university in the US, they were on a one-year sabbatical in Beirut. With some tears from his mom, she said that their son had a checkered history with school...several schools, lots of behavior issues. They were very worried.
Why? In IQ, he tested as a genius. As a result, he often challenged his teachers on the accuracy of what they were teaching. He knew more than they did and, thus, he did not respect them.
Oh, great! This ought to be interesting! What do I do now? Here are these two PhDs who are about 20 years older than I am asking for my help. Not just a little bit intimidating! “Okay,” I said. “I’ll do my best! Thanks for coming!”
His need to test me and compete with me began on Day 1. Exhausting! This went on for a couple of weeks. What to do?
One day I thought, “He’s got this meticulous mind. I wonder if he plays chess.” The next day I asked him. He said he did. “If you are interested, maybe you could stay for an hour or so after school one or two days a week and teach me. I’ve always wanted to learn to play chess. What do you think?”
So I began to learn chess. I was a willing student. But he was an ever better teacher...patient, detailed in his explanations, understanding of strategy, able to see out several moves in any direction. I noticed a difference in his attitude toward me, too. One day I casually said to him, “You know that you are smarter than I am, right? I know it, too. All that I have ‘over’ you are age and size. And they are no big deal!”
Then I asked him, “How would you like to teach chess to the class? If you’re interested, we could have people bring in chess sets and we’ll spend some time learning and playing chess. With you teaching. What do you think?”
That was how it began. Eventually, he and I co-taught Science for the last half of the year (being that it was his forte and I felt rather incompetent in that subject anyway.) We were a great team.
And, in spite of the fact that he had a special role, he became a member of the class. He became the child that he deserved to be. He developed friends because he didn’t have to focus on me, fight with me. He relaxed.
It was a watershed experience for me. I learned something of what it really means to be a teacher, a model, and a leader. I discovered...stumbled upon...some of the genius in myself! At age 24.
Looking back from several decades hence, I’m amazed at my creative problem solving ability, my inventiveness, my caring, and my investment in this young person. Yes, indeed. But also I’m amazed at the valuable, though unconscious, investment I made in myself as well!
[Photo by Barbara, from contact sheet, Beirut, Lebanon, 1971]