It’s a platitude: Anyone who has ever taught knows that you learn from your students and pupils.
Back in the nineteen-eighties I had a group of students who were preparing for the Cambridge First Certificate in English. That was a satisfying course to teach in many ways, and I had an interesting mixture of young people eager to learn. Besides the regular giggly seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, there was a young thirty-something woman and two young men in their early twenties.
Initially Jenny, the young woman, clearly felt a little embarrassed about being a “mature” student but soon settled into a “big sister” role. The two young men were a different matter. Danny was a cool dude, moustachioed, very self-assured and ready to rule the world. Andreas was a tall, slim-built and rather pale young dandy, with a coquettish expression, and clearly influenced by the then-popular New Romantic look. Danny’s face revealed his distaste, and his homophobia.
My first task was to create harmony in this disparate group. During the third lesson, I noticed that Andreas was writing with his left hand, and I made a comment about the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Andreas smiled, and raised his right hand, which had been lying with the fingers slightly curled beside his book. “No, I‘m not really left-handed,” he said, and I realised that his right hand was a very realistic looking prosthetic. “I had cancer and they had to amputate this one.”
That was the moment the group gelled. Andreas talked openly about what had happened to him, occasionally searching for words, and the group learned some new vocabulary in the most natural way.
He had been a hairdresser with all his heart and soul, passionate about his calling, and had never wanted to do anything else. He had completed his apprenticeship with one of the best stylists in Switzerland, and was rapidly climbing the ladder to success when cancer intervened. With no right hand, his career was ended. Now he had to try to find something else that would satisfy his aspirations, and English seemed a useful skill to have in his pocket.
The effect on the class was like the sun shining on a flower garden: they all opened up, and began to blossom.
Over the next few months, I observed how much each member of the class gained from Andreas. He advised the girls on fashion and hairstyles, suggesting subtle improvements (“Ask them to use caramel as well as giving you highlights”), and he responded to Jenny’s maternal attitude, giving her greater self-confidence in the group. Danny became his friend and protector, perceptibly less judgemental and much more open to other people’s ideas. They all made excellent progress in their English, and I had great hopes for my high-flyers, especially Andreas.
Then, one morning, Andreas came to me after class and said he wouldn’t be sitting the exam. His cancer had returned, and his future was uncertain. I didn’t understand what he was telling me.
“Are you going to have chemo?” I asked.
“No,” he gave me his charming smile. “I don’t want to lose my hair. I want to be a well-coiffed corpse!”
Stupidly, I still didn’t understand. “You can take the exam next time around, in six months.”
“I won’t be here.”
That was the last time I saw him.
The others all passed the exam with flying colours, and of course were jubilant. They came to thank me for what they had achieved, but there was a tinge of sadness. Then Amanda, one of the youngest girls, told me that they had all been to see Andreas in the hospice. It was unthinkable that he should miss the class celebration, so they had taken along cakes and candies and had presented him with a special certificate – not just for his proficiency in English, but for his wonderful humanity and generosity of spirit, with personal messages of thanks signed by each of them. He had been very touched, and though he was very weak he had joined in the party. He died shortly afterwards. His classmates’ tribute was displayed prominently at his funeral.
Yes, sometimes our students teach us far more than we could ever learn from books.