On compassion and just deserts

I was talking with a friend while we were walking to the subway after dinner. We had eaten at a Vietnamese/Thai fusion which was awesome by the way.  And as we were winding around, the conversation wended as the are wont to do on a beautiful October evening in the middle of the week. We talked about our days and weeks and plans and then we started talking about ideas.

I’m reading a book – Justice by Michael J. Sandel.  It is more about political philosophy, and one of the philosophers that he discusses is John Rawls. He has a distributive justice idea, that I’m not sure I fully understand enough to explain, but one of the ideas he has is that we don’t really deserve all the things we have earned.  I tend to agree. I don’t really “deserve” my job.  A lot of my good fortune in life was not from my work, or even my talent.  I was born in a country that speaks a language other countries want to learn.  I didn’t earn that, I didn’t work for that, it isn’t even a great talent. I just happened to be born into that language, and that makes me valuable.  Don’t get me wrong, I do work hard at being the best teacher I can be.  I worked hard for my degree, but again, I was lucky to come from a country that gives second chances for education. It isn’t something I choose, it is just the way my society runs things.

There are many people smarter than I am, who work harder, and who have more talent than I ever will. Yet because they were born in a different situation, they will not be able to work as a teacher in many countries, whereas I can.  I don’t “deserve” this good fortune. If I acknowledge this, I have to acknowledge the other side. Many people in worse situations don’t “deserve” them either.

As a teacher it is easy to forget this. It is easy to like the students who like you, and who like your subject.  It is much harder to realize that the students who don’t like English, who have other talents, some talents that are not as valued as English or Math skills, are also deserving and worthy.  I admit that there are students that frustrate me. They seem truculent and uncooperative, they don’t want to participate.  I have to remember that I felt the same way in many of my classes in high school ( actually I was a horrible student in high school – I think I may have even driven a few teachers to drink).  I have to remember that the “bad” students aren’t bad people, that the students who aren’t talented in languages aren’t untalented in life.  I try to have compassion for them. Notice I said try.

And that is what my friend and I were talking about. Compassion. What does it mean to have compassion? I don’t think it means having sympathy or even empathy with someone. I don’t think having compassion excuses un-social behavior or not working. I don’t think it means we should give students that don’t study or don’t “get it” no matter how hard they try a pass.  I do think that compassion is very different from that.  Compassion is difficult.

As a teacher I try to have compassion for my students, even the ones I don’t really like, or the ones that don’t want to work in my class.  It isn’t always easy.  And I often fail. I’m feeling less than compassionate right now. There is one student that has leveled up. She said she was afraid.  I felt bad, I’m not that scary in the upper level classes. Honest.  But she is a bit of an outcast in her current class.  I’ve been trying to reach out to her a bit, but it is hard, and I don’t want to make things worse.  Some of the students (even ones that I thought were kind of nice and pretty cool) don’t want to sit with her, or let her into their groups. They don’t hide their displeasure at having her join their work-groups.  This student is afraid that it will be worse in the next class, because now, she has gotten used to things in this class. I feel a lot of sympathy for her. As someone not particularly popular in class I also feel a lot of empathy.  I have a hard time feeling much compassion for the girls who bully her.

It comes at a time when several boys had been bullied until they committed suicide in the US. It breaks my heart to see kids that had so much potential, who had so much to offer, leave us so early.  I think they are “deserving” of compassion.  I want to have compassion for those that bullied them as well.  But that seems like I’m saying, oh, those poor bullies, who will think of them. I don’t want to say that. They have done too much damage.

But what is compassion if it is only bestowed on the good guys?

I don’t have an answer.  I try to be a good person. I try to be a good teacher. I try to “earn” my good fortune. I try to be compassionate, not just to the ‘good’ students, but also the ‘bad’ students.  I try to be compassionate to myself.

 

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