The Art of Believing

Image courtesy of Biscarotte via Creative Commons.
We're swamped with some exciting projects (stay tuned), so please enjoy this repost from 11/29/10.

by Mary Pat Champeau, IHE's Director of Education

 Long ago, as a new teacher in Niger, West Africa, I had three young boys in one of my over-sized classes who had purchased eyeglasses in the village market. They had promptly removed the prescription lenses from these glasses, and they kept the frames tucked in their shirt pockets.

Whenever it was time to read from the textbooks, which they all shared, they would remove their “eyeglasses” from their pockets, put the glasses on, and peer studiously at the small text of the book. When reading time was over, they would carefully remove these glasses and tuck them back into their shirt pockets.

At first, I was so amused by this. The students, while often rowdy and hard to manage as a teacher, generally had a great sense of humor and fun. When the boys first showed me the glasses, I asked what good they were (imagine my ignorance). They were shocked that I would ask such a thing. Glasses are beautiful, and they help you be intelligent, they explained. Many, in fact most, intelligent people they knew of wore glasses. I appreciated the aspiration to be beautiful and intelligent, so I just admired the glasses and never mentioned it again.

As the months wore on, I noticed some of my other students also began wearing “glasses” they had purchased in the market. In fact, one extremely hot afternoon I remember looking out over my class of 50 students and noticing a wide variety of eyeglasses – every kind of style. It had become the mode in my class, and I loved what it represented. I was not so naïve as to believe my students actually thought the glasses made them intelligent; in fact they were far too intelligent already for such an idea. But there was a growing seriousness about learning new things that was blossoming in these 10- and 11-year-old students, and the glasses expressed this new growth with style and prestige.

I should mention that at the time, there was not an eye doctor in the country, not even in the capital city as far as I know, and the eyeglasses in the market had been donated by the Lions Club for people who needed them. In a strict sense, we could say that my students were wasting the efforts of the Lions Club donors, popping out the lenses and wearing the glasses for “style.” But let’s not be so strict. The vision these eyeglass frames gave my students was a vision of themselves in their next stage of life – a vision of how education could help make them beautiful and intelligent. Wearing their special glasses, they saw themselves a few steps ahead of where they stood and gave themselves an attractive image to grow into. I was a teacher in that village school for two years, and I can tell you that the glasses worked.

I think of my bespectacled students often when I see people (full adults, including myself!) struggling to imagine how their lives might change if they tried to really live by what they knew -- if they made choices based on their best intentions and highest desires for themselves, their families, and the planet. We have something to learn from my young, beautiful, intelligent students, and that is the art of believing. As Virgil said long ago, “They were able because they believed they were able.” This applies to us as people striving to create a more peaceful and compassionate world through education: We must believe we are able. Sometimes, a little prop is needed – a little magic.

When we are facing down a seemingly intractable issue, I recommend that we remove our own version of the market-glasses from our pockets, place them on our noses, hunker down with friends, and look at the problem again. Not everything that works can be explained to or by the rational mind. Art, fun, theater, style – these things appeal to our emotions and often, what we remember emotionally, we remember for good. I vote that we practice the art of believing, no matter how disbelieving we might feel, and that we never leave our love of life, learning, and fun behind while doing so.

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