Looking back on my meandering path of employment, common themes do emerge. My jobs all reside within three main fields: teaching, agriculture, and food service. These three fields seem very different, but I now see that they are united in a common element. They are all connected to the process of growth and nurture: raising healthy plants and animals, raising healthy children and adults, and nurturing the most basic of human daily retreats, shared meals.
The word teach comes from an Old English root word that meant to "show, declare, warn, persuade." Over the years, as I have taught, I have indeed shown, but as any teacher will tell you, I have been shown so much. Each day is a learning experience for the teacher, as they gauge how and when the teaching worked and how and when the teaching failed.
My teaching began by working with mentally-handicapped adults while I was in high school. In graduate school I was able to help teach a number of courses in the field of City Planning. My favorite teaching gig – to the most appreciative students – came next: teaching math and facilitating a poetry workshop at Auburn Maximum Security Prison. My most recent teaching opportunity was teaching World Religions to high school students in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Throughout all these teaching jobs, the aspect that resonated most with me was the opportunity to mentor. And this is not solely the guide for my role as teacher, but this is how I approach my role as writer. When I mentor, I feed kindling to already burning fires. I aim to help fires grow stronger and more effectively. The mentor has the essential task of guiding, of encouraging, of providing feedback, of keeping it real through the sharing of one’s own battle stories. My first book, Prayers and Knives and other Meditations on the Search for Mentors, was my first attempt to pay complete respect to the life-changing role of a good mentor.
The benefit of all these various teaching environments was the intimacy established between teacher and student, between mentor and mentee. The role of the teacher is to help the healthy growth of this human being. And the opportunity to help us grow healthy minds and spirits in these various sub-cultures – Ivy League college classrooms, inner city schools, tough prisons – is enlightening because I am able to see what we all share in common. It allowed me great insight into how we grow and learn, and what limits our abilities to grow and learn.