I learned a lot on this summer’s vacation to the North Island of New Zealand, but the biggest thing I learned was a lesson I had failed to learn earlier in my informal schooling.
First, a few of the things I learned:
1. How to drive on the left side of the road, which meant slow and dangerous unlearning about driving on the right. (I never would have made it without my daughter’s coaching, “Dad, you’re drifting. You’re DRIFTING!”)
2. How, once appointed to be the great chief of a tribe of confused Chinese tourists, to follow the nose-rubbing rituals of the Maori leaders and to lead my people in a vigorous, fierce “haka” dance.
3. The interesting history of the land, the sea, the wildlife, the Maori and the British, which features the usual depressing wars and extinctions but also redeems itself in hope for this mystical, emerald place.
4. The tastes of fine New Zealand wine.
5. What the world looks like ziplining through the canopy of a primeval rainforest.
6. The look and feel of swamp kauri wood, 4,000 years old.
7. The habits and personalities of whole new genera of birds: prions, gannets, kiwis, fantails and the virtuosic tui, a honeyeater that shakes the feathery bells on its neck to inspire the exquisite dance of Maori women.
8. The honeyed sound of Kiri te Kanawha’s voice singing traditional Maori songs.
9. The ways volcanoes continue to shape the landscape while providing free heat and healing mineral baths to the people of Rotorua (“Rotovegas” to some).
10. What my lunatic wife and daughter looked like in free-fall from a height of 1,076 feet above the concrete in Auckland, when they gleefully jumped from the top of the Sky Tower there.
There was so much more. I wished constantly that I had New York students with me, the ones whose explorations had been limited to the handball courts in their local parks. Your identity and sense of potential do, I am now certain, expand with your geographic horizons.
But I was glad they weren’t there to see me learn the lesson that I had failed to learn, which, like most worthwhile lessons, is embodied in a story:
Returning my family’s rental car to the Auckland airport, the Avis attendant in the parking lot noticed scratches on the front fender that I hadn’t noticed before. They hadn’t been recorded on the rental agreement form. A trip through the airport to the manager’s office was required to see if the damage should be assessed to me. The manager quickly cleared the issue up. Seeing the scratches in a photo in the car’s electronic files, I was not to blame. Driving back to the lot to be reunited with my family, I began a conversation with the attendant, who said his name was Roger, and who was a South African of Indian descent. He told me how in South Africa he had been a photo lithographer. He obviously took pride in his identity as a professional who had mastered such unusual skills. He was rueful that his entire profession had died out with the advent of modern information technology. From his demeanor I could tell that he wasn’t bitter, however. Somehow, philosophically, he had attained the equanimity that comes with accepting an unavoidable downturn in one’s destiny.
Roger asked me what I did. When I revealed that I was a staff developer in the schools, he wondered if I ever got involved with Shakespeare. “Sure,” I said,” thinking of the several projects I had designed in collaboration with English teachers. The work had been successful at exciting even the least literate of students in Shakespeare. As a byproduct, research projects had been kindled, into the psychology of love, of greed, of altruism, of sociopathy. I was as proud of my accomplishments as an educator as Roger was of his as a lithographer. Roger and I had formed a fellowship over our shared sense of occupational mastery. So much so that Roger felt free to quote, eloquently, Shakespeare’s sonnet “Let Me Not Into the Marriage of True Minds.”
I hadn’t really expected to delve this deeply into the literary arts with an attendant in a car return lot, but here I was, and it was a marvel. Roger finished the sonnet as we pulled into the parking place. I turned in the passenger to share the one Shakespearean sonnet I had memorized, “My Mistress’s Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun.” I had committed it to memory after working with poet Carol Conroy, who advocated “learning poems by heart” (not “memorizing”) because (a) you never knew when you would need them, (b) your life would be infinitely richer for owning them, and (c) they work like prayers to center and calm the spirit.
But the poem wouldn’t come to mind. It had, like the fish that got away, descended deep, without a trace – not an engram to be found – into the murk of my hippocampus. I was embarrassed. Me, a teacher of teachers and professor of writing and literature, mute in the company of a parking lot attendant? Who was the better learner, the better educator here? Why had Roger been able to call up his sonnet and not me mine? Was it the product of the English system, where bullying pedagogues hammered literature into their pupils’ long term memory with their yardsticks? Was there something wrong with my system, based on gentle inquiry?
I was an embarrassment to my guild.
On the long plane ride back to the states, I began to learn my sonnet by heart again, and, on the use-it-or-lose-it hypothesis, have been mentally rehearsing it every day when I brush my teeth, wash the dishes, walk to the subway. Last week I quoted it to my wife Elizabeth on a drive to have dinner with friends upstate. She seemed to appreciate it. I have it back, Carol, so not to worry. Those questions about learning, though – they still linger. I will be inquiring into them for a long time, I suspect.