Education Opinion

Mission Possible

Teachers, with full knowledge of how the world can go wrong, must stay committed to making things right.
By Michael Umphrey — September 01, 1995 8 min read

Later, I asked people about Abel, but nobody knew much. He took his dog with him everywhere he went, a mongrel that looked to be part Border collie. He worked at the school for a while, filling in on temporary jobs. His dog followed him throughout the building, waiting patiently while Abel scraped paint off the stage floor or put new paint on a door. When I tried to call up an image of him, I drew a blank. He’d been invisible to me.

My classes at school were full of American Indian students who came from worlds more like Abel’s than those of their middle-class teachers. Orderly families had been weakened a century before when proud Salish hunters lost their way and became economically unimportant to a group of people confined to a reservation. Many of these men turned to alcohol. Many of their children grew up without parents at all, in boarding schools.

Abel lived in a rented room on the top floor of the Mission Hotel. That was its official name. People who lived there, though, were having a hard time of it, and they called the place Heartbreak Hotel.

One evening in December, Abel closed his door and began drinking. A little past midnight, the tenants next door heard a gunshot, then voices, then another gunshot. They called 911. The town cop followed a county deputy as he unholstered his .44 and stepped into the back door of the hotel. He worked his way slowly up the narrow stairs, freezing at each creak, studying each doorway, holding his gun ready.

When the officers reached the third floor, they stepped into the bathroom across the banister from Abel’s room. “Abel, this is the police,” the county deputy called loudly. “What’s going on?”

Silence. Then the door opened. Suddenly the hall exploded with the roar of gunfire. The deputy returned fire. The silence continued roaring for minutes after the shots. The air smelled of powder.

I arrived a few minutes later. Small town people wear many hats, and besides my work in schools, I operate a volunteer ambulance. I used scissors to bare Abel’s chest, being careful not to cut through the bullet holes, which the crime lab would want intact. I listened through the stethoscope to nothing. Then I closed his fixed, lightless eyes.

I walked back into the hall where a growing crowd of police officers was gathering from all over the county, with cameras, tape measures, and memo pads. The scene needed to be left intact—shell casings where they had fallen on the floor, Abel’s empty pistol where he had dropped it.

“He’s dead,” I said to the officers. I walked downstairs, slipped through the crowd that had gathered outside. Many of them were children. I got into the ambulance, which I’d left running with the heater on. It was warm and four other crew members were there. They had waited to see if I needed help because the police wanted to minimize traffic inside. Nobody felt like talking.

When I got home, I couldn’t sleep. I thought about Abel’s apartment. His habitat had been small, cluttered, disorderly—like his life. So it is with us all—our habitat is made of our habits. We develop habits—our second nature—and these habits create an environment. The important point is that the habits we get, like the language we speak, depend on those around us. If we are surrounded by intelligent people who practice all the little habits that encourage happiness, we tend to become more intelligent ourselves. We get up in the morning, put things away, brush our teeth. If we are especially fortunate, we grow up among people who practice the harder habits of kindness, reliability, cheerfulness, diligence, and honesty.

Most teachers learn quickly the astonishing power family habits have over children. Of course, not everyone who grows up surrounded by an order where such habits as patience and compassion are practiced and taught automatically develops them. That would be too easy, too harmful to our freedom. But it’s just as true that children who live every day with harshness, fickleness, pessimism, and rage would need to be unusually gifted to see past these to something better.

A few nights before Abel was killed, a man down the street had jerked his former wife’s arm hard enough to dislocate her shoulder. While the police cuffed him and put him in their car, we loaded her onto a cot to take her to the hospital. While she cried, he stood proud and unsubmissive, a warrior, his head thrown back and his long hair free in the night, his wrists bound but his spirit wild.

Their three children, the youngest about six and the oldest about 10, begged to go with us. The man and woman had yelled and argued about a set of keys, which he said were to his car and she said were to her trailer. It was a Tuesday. If the kids were at school the next day, I doubted they would be with teachers who knew much about their lives.

What those kids need, more than information, is a moral order enacted and clarified and practiced daily by adults who, with full knowledge of how the world can go wrong, stay committed nonetheless to making things right.

Unfortunately, our schools sometimes offer their own form of moral disorder. Our work in large organizations is divided into small pieces, and workers become adept at hearing information at the scale of their specialty. This fragmentation creates an ironic situation: What makes us powerful, our ability to organize, also makes us deaf to what we need to hear.

For example, the superintendent of a school often thinks in time frames of years or even decades, trying to hear slow-moving demographic shifts and legislative trends that will change enrollments and budgets and community expectations, monitoring the deterioration of buildings and buses, anticipating shifts in social values. Though the superintendent might be aware that a particular teacher is weak, he or she is probably more concerned with changing hiring practices and training programs than with changing that one teacher’s performance this afternoon. A good teacher, on the other hand, will tend to be attentive to faster-moving phenomena, such as what happened with a particular student this morning and what adjustments the staff can make this week. When such specialists meet to discuss problems, they sometimes don’t quite hear one another.

In such situations, self-interested careerism often prevails over moral clarity. Too often the systems we build encourage us to believe that success matters more than goodness, and charm more than truth. But the art of real teaching comes down to this: The teacher must be willing to live by the rules of the world as it ought to be and could be rather than as it is. Our only hope for unity in a pluralistic society lies in the possibility that each of us, from whatever culture, can understand that some things are wrong: It’s wrong to hurt other people to get something we want. It’s wrong to deceive people. It’s wrong to be unmoved by the plight of our neighbors. It’s wrong to take what isn’t ours. It’s wrong to want more than our share.

People who act on such beliefs in matters big and small, making them habits, soon find themselves becoming prosperous, soon find their towns becoming beautiful and safe, soon find their farmlands becoming bountiful and sustainable. And they create a community that neglected children can join.

Fortunately for the place I live, the Salish culture was never completely destroyed. A core of quiet people struggled to keep alive their belief in a better way. In recent years, tribal leaders have emerged strong from a long history of hardship. They are rebuilding a living moral order, and they are reaching out to lost children, inviting them to join a real community. Though they face enormous problems, their faith is strong. Teachers can learn much from them.

They know that when we’ve strayed from a good path, our lives often take on a momentum that carries us farther than we meant to go. It becomes harder and harder to believe we can stop or go back. We need to be reminded more often than we need to be taught, and we need to be given courage more than we need to be given information.

Twenty minutes after I got home from examining Abel, my radio went off again. “Mission Ambulance, please return to the Mission Hotel. An officer is down.” When I got there, the deputy who had shot Abel was writhing on the floor, gasping for air. His forehead glistened with sweat. He had trouble hearing or answering questions. He had sharp pain in his chest. His hands and feet were numb.

Hyperventilation. It begins when a person breathes too quickly, but the feeling is that he can’t get enough air. The faster he breathes, the more he feels air hunger. It’s a common pattern in our lives: We do the wrong thing, and the more we do it, the worse things get, and the more we feel we need to keep doing it. It was a pattern Abel knew.

A good coach can help, standing outside the problem, staying calm, reminding the person of what he knows but, at the moment, isn’t practicing. It’s as simple as standing close to the person, speaking into his ear, convincing him that he can breathe normally, reminding him how to do it. It’s possible for one person to infect another with calm, with faith, and even with goodness.

One spring after being caught up in a particularly nasty and futile political war, I visited a lake in the Mission Mountains. It was a calm day, and I tossed a rock into the water, then watched. I followed the ripples as far as I could. Eventually, at the edge of my eyesight, the ripples merged into riffles caused by wind and other disturbances, becoming part of an endless dance. It was a half-hour before I lost completely the pattern of my stone amid the endlessly changing patterns of the lake’s surface. I lost sight of it, but I never saw it stop. It goes on forever.

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Mission Possible