More on Why Teachers Really Matter

Dr. Berit Mexia: Being and Time
by Ken Goldstein
Iolani School Bulletin, Fall 1997
Mexia,_Berit_1989-5-24_3

Now we come to what could be called the most characteristic element of Taoism-in-action. In Chinese, it is known as Wu Wei. It is also the most characteristic element of Pooh-in-action. In English, it is not known as much of anything in particular. We believe that it’s time that someone noticed it and called it something, so we will call in the Pooh Way.
Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

In your life, you should only be so lucky as to meet an individual who can teach you something no one else can. In your life, you should only be so lucky as to study under someone who can bring you to think in a way you previously could not imagine. In your life, you should only be so lucky as to have a friend share with you the true gift of learning, to know a person who knows what it means to see things differently, to spend time with someone who truly changes the way your mind works and sends you down the roads less traveled. If that happens to you just once, you have had the good fortune to experience a miracle.

I was that lucky. I was a student of Berit Mexia.

In the Spring of 1979, in the second semester of our Junior Year, a few of us disco children were sitting around trying to figure out yet another way to beat The System at Iolani. Of course no one could ever really beat The System at Iolani, but that never stopped a few of us from trying desperately year after year. The question at hand was how we might be able to get through the semester elective in the Religion Department we owed the school for graduation without actually taking any of the classes offered in the catalogue. There was no particular reason for this act of intellectual rebellion, other than the fact that we knew we could cause a stir if we actually made it happen.

Now it came to pass that this same Buck-The-System group of us had in our Sophomore Year been assigned to a study hall under the tutelage of one Berit Mexia, Ph.D. It was mostly in our procrastination around getting through daily trigonometry drills and chemistry problem sets that we would strike up conversations with Frau Mexia, and it was in these same conversational travels that we learned she had studied under someone named Martin Heidegger in the Black Forest of Germany. We also learned that she had written a doctoral dissertation on the meaning of subjectivity in the writings of Soren Kierkegaard, and that when she wasn’t brushing up on her Plato and Aristotle she was delving into the role of Zen in the advancement of western thought.

What I remember most was the gold pendant she wore most days that displayed the three words that told her whole story: “Live Love Laugh.”

It was always that simple. No matter what we talked about, no matter how serious the stream of consciousness or how complex the logical argument, the take-away was always one of heart. The subject of which we were getting a taste was known as Philosophy, which previously had meant little more to me than deconstructing the lyrical refrains of “Brain Damage” on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Frau Mexia put it to me in a different way, she asked me one question: “How do you get a goose out of a bottle?” She said that one would keep a highly disciplined student busy for perhaps a year, maybe two.

So that would be the ticket, we would get Frau Mexia to take a one period break each day from teaching German to teach us Philosophy, and we would convince Headmaster David Coon to let us take that class as our religion elective. When we asked Frau Mexia if she would teach us, she naively agreed, mostly because she knew we didn’t have a prayer at changing the Iolani curriculum in both creating a class that had never been taught and in shoe-horning it into a department where it was a stretch at best. But we got her promise to teach us a survey class in Philosophy if we got it approved, and when twenty of us signed a petition and said we needed this course for own personal well-being and presented it to Headmaster Coon, he of course said no.

That is, he said no the first time we asked. He also said no the second time. And I think the third. His primary concern was that at our tender age we could not yet appreciate the depth of the material that would be put before us, that we had not yet achieved intellectual context in our lives to put in perspective the heresy of Socrates or the torment of Nietzsche. The reason that I know this was his concern is because he told me, and I was appalled, not so much because of his lack of faith in our intellectual development to date (which was well warranted, we were after all rebels) but because he had not yet considered the gift of the teacher who would teach us. Heck, I was in sell mode, I had to get this deal closed. Don’t ask me how, but somehow he said yes.

And that was when my life changed. I sure hadn’t planned on it.

Remember, this started as a way to Beat The System. So when Frau Mexia showed up to teach us Philosophy in the fall of 1979, in the first semester of our Senior Year, and handed us Plato’s Apology for our first night’s reading, imagine our surprise. This was not going to be a cake walk. We were going to work. We were also going to learn.

I could take you through that class and tell you all the things we learned because I remember most of them. I could name for you all the writers whose works we read because I still have their books on my shelf. I could tell you how Frau Mexia created a seamless arc connecting the ancient classicists to the modern existentialists and then bridged the gap between western linear logic and eastern mysticism. But that is not what you need to know about Berit Mexia. What you need to know about Frau Mexia was what she gave to us of herself, what she embodied that was unique, and why my debt to her will never be repaid.

First impressions in literature mean just as much as they do in social and business settings. The way in which an idea is introduced is every bit as important as the actual content of the idea. This is the difference between instruction and teaching. Any reasonably well-read or well-versed individual can usually be counted on to instruct, but it takes something much less tangible than memory to teach. Most people really do not “get” Zarathustra because their first impressions of it were not well framed, and they spend perhaps the next twenty years with a bad taste in their mouth for its core conceit because they have only a vague notion of its meaning. Too little knowledge of anything really is dangerous because in the end all we can retain are our impressions. This was Headmaster Coon’s fear, and it is legitimate. Enter Frau Mexia. She would not allow her students to spend their lives backing out of the confusion that too easily emerges as the result of careless instruction. She took us forward into each idea one layer at a time, continually took our temperature on meaning, and only then turned the page. That is what it means to teach, and it is a rare gift to have as well as to share. I don’t think she knew this, she just did it.

It is a loving demon, this thing called Knowledge. It is not a casual curiosity, it is a lifelong commitment. It will consume you if it is not guided by discipline such that it can become Wisdom. These are not just words. The Teacher keeps the demon at bay.

And then there is the person. Who was she?

As humble as she was, Frau Mexia simply refused to conform. She refused to see the world as you and I see it. She refused to accept cynicism as a given, she refused to seek selfish means, she refused to acknowledge the ordinary as anything but extraordinary. She knew that it was an honor to be a teacher, and she saw her opportunity in life to learn and teach as privileges one and the same. Her life was about sharing wisdom, and her life was about humor. Her mission (if she had one, and I don’t think she thought she did) was to get you to look at whatever you were looking at in a way you just couldn’t have on your own. And after a while you’d actually get so brazen as to think you were getting there on your own, and she’d just laugh an innocent laugh and suddenly you were humbled. You knew you had not arrived there on your own.

Just when you would capture the essence of Hegel she would rip the rug out from under dialectics and throw you into Kant. Were you to digest the categorical imperative, she might just point you to the poetry of Kafka. And lest you ever got too full of yourself, you were never more than a verse away from her favorite philosopher of all, Winnie the Pooh (I kid you not, pretty much everything you need to know is all there in the first four books of Pooh).

There was only one point–there was always another way to look at the world, and whatever you were thinking today, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t immerse yourself fully in trying to see the world another way. This was intellectual rigor, this was academic frustration, and this was the joy of going inside and making your mind work at the level God might have hoped or even intended when we were created. She taught us to think, to reason, to intuit, to never take our minds for granted, and to never take ourselves too seriously. In lesson after lesson we learned that wisdom is knowledge of our ignorance. Most importantly, she made it fun.

I know I have not said it right. I cannot say it right. I can only feel it. Every single day, I still feel it.

Philosophy means “the love of knowledge.” I was seventeen years old when I began studying Philosophy under Berit Mexia, she opened this door for me and my friends in the Class of 1980 and she went on to teach this class year after year, long after we disco-generation punks graduated from college and came out here in the world where life and business are too often about less interesting and less noble pursuits. I know she touched others as she touched me because it happened, and I know they are thankful as am I. It has been a lifetime of discipline and a lifetime of learning. This was what her life was about. That, and a light that emanated from her in a way I still cannot describe. She was just too unique, too brilliant, too different, too focused, beaming with too much joy.

I am still trying to get that goose out of the bottle.

Live Love Laugh.

Berit Mexia Peace Institute

A Great Teacher is a Gift for a Lifetime

Valerie Haas: Classically Remembered
by Ken Goldstein
Iolani School Bulletin, Fall 2010

Valerie Haas was a Master Teacher.  She was serious about her work, serious about her students, serious about the classics and their relevancy to our lives. She cared immensely about excellence, precision, continuity, and character. She was guarded, yes, but she was equally multidimensional. There was a lot to her, and if you wanted to know what that was, asking would have been a poor strategy. It was her job to teach, it was our job to learn, but it was everyone’s job to listen and care. If you got that, you got extra credit. And your life was richer for the epilogue.

Context is a variable of interpretation that is not terribly well understood or appreciated. To understand context is to put translation on par with circumstance. Surely even the most stubborn and uninterested recruits can be taught to decline a noun, but can they be taught to understand why otherwise rote memorization might one day save their curricula vitae? The simple answer is you can likely learn anything you want to learn, but the truth is, you must commit to deciphering the context of a subject or you are right back to recitation. A good teacher knows this, and lets you decide how to ascribe context to drill. A great teacher knows when you get it, and withholds just enough satisfaction that you are forced to bring reference to bear.

Just how good was Valerie Haas at this near brutal form of inspiration? My sense is that the football and basketball coaches quietly studied her classroom, but would never tell the tale. Let’s see, you have a roomful of 13 year olds who always raise their hands, enunciate clearly when called upon, share perfect tempo in choral reading, and don’t even bother to step into the classroom if late without an automatic side trip for a tardy slip. The rules are clear. And the scores? Fiftysomething years of gold, sliver, and bronze medals in national competitions, not a year missed without a student celebrated on a global scale with the words “Iolani” and “Hawaii” attached to their accolades. And remember, we are talking Latin.

But back to context. If you dared utter the words “dead language” in her second floor classroom, you were not going to have a good semester. Then again, if you asked her why it still made sense to study Latin in the late twentieth century, you would be readily introduced – for that matter metaphysically welcomed – to purposeful dialogue. Fully a third of all lessons and class discussions focused on etymology – what are the root words in English that we can track to their origins. If you wanted to survive the redlined grammatical assassination of an English or History paper, you were coming to a knife fight with a polished saber – provided of course you had mastered Latin sentence structure. If you thought poetry was tough, Cummings and Whitman had nothing on Ovid or Virgil. Connections from then to later became clear in no less than the texts of Caesar (Omnia Gallia in tres partes divisa est…”) while we also learned how Cicero laid much of the pipe necessary for Shakespeare to mold history into drama (Cicero even secured himself a bit part from The Bard). And once you’ve chewed through the back beat underlying dactylic hexameter, forever more the iambic pentameter of Elizabethan rhythm proves less surreal, more accessible, staggeringly fluid.

So she taught us Latin to make it easier for us to learn everything else?  Well, I suppose I would call that a byproduct, but not quite context.  Imagine for a moment the very notion of teaching Latin to 7th and 8th graders (and the lucky brave who went beyond) in the middle of the Pacific, in an emerging modern city welcoming refugees of the Vietnam airlift. Consider the local political climate of a proudly proclaimed melting pot seeking reconciliation of perspective within its own Polynesian heritage, and planted there an “old school” transitioning from didactic monologue and homilies on original sin to encouraged discussion and embrace of God’s absolute love – no personal computers yet, but the times they really were a changing. Consider the notion of order, structure, and the fundamental task of college readiness for students who knew they had been signed up without escape clause for a college preparatory contract not even knowing a wee bit what was in the deal. Consider on the radio The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, The Doors – all highly encouraging of mythic enlightenment, but nowhere including reference to the accusative or case. Now get up and teach Latin, and still turn out thinking honor students. The case for context is no longer shared; it is the teacher’s problem.

Or is it?  Did we really think fear alone – fear of challenge, fear of rigor – was trepidation enough to keep us in tow, let alone rope a dope with the arriving digital age? That was not my observation, intimidation was a style of schooling that lost purpose as expected reasoning replaced mandated conformity, as the daunting essay test really did demand a well supported opinion, and voices were meant to be expressive, not muted in programmed restraint. Could a traditionalist make that switch? She didn’t need to, because she was there from day one.  She never changed because her style was crafted in permanence – stepping in the same river was moot, the forms defined all. It was we who changed, she was the catalyst. The context was the contemporary, though as I later learned many times over, the root of contemporary is temporary. Valerie Haas was of The Day, every day – and it worked.

Am I telling you she was a rebel? Well, if insisting that heels still slam to the floor when other teachers are starting to let students wear their hair over their ears, then I suppose yes, she was a rebel in holding onto tradition. Not surprisingly that was hardly her aim.Her aim was purely to help us understand that the roots of all change rest warily in the past, and in order to effectively bring change one must digest and dissect the past. It is noble to bring reform, but sensible reform is virtually impossible without complete retrospection and intelligent cataloging. We embrace the classics for their beauty and resonance, for their structure and significance, but all creative destruction begins with that which we choose to change. To change an idea, a school, a society – to make the present better – is to embrace the legacies of the before not as perfect, but as accurate in the time of their origin, their context.  The great scientist and the great artist have this in common, before they dismiss the failings of misinformation they fully walk in the realm of the masters. You cannot bring change if you have no empathy for that which you are trying to change. So you study. And you study hard.  For long periods of time. And then when you see what is wrong you also see what is right, whether then or now, in order to come to terms with consequence. And it is the role of a Master Teacher to pass along this truism from generation to generation, whether the static around it is comprised of AM radio or digital streaming, it just does not matter.

The great mentors teach us to learn, and context is the documentary where and when of change, not the more glamorous and speculative why or how. The where and when are learned in our lessons, the why and how are exercises in creativity introduced through event and circumstance. Context remains a priori, the root of perspective, preamble to change. Context is truth serum, inescapable in argument, disarmingly complex, a detective story often without hero, yet always the set up, the amplification, the table setting for the menu to be.  Valerie Haas understood that every hour she was in the classroom, every minute of study hall, even in the fragments of hallway chatter, which I promise you she enjoyed more than she let on. She was studying you, because she wanted you to be ready to be better, to be courageous and take on necessary action. She would help you if you wanted help, she would drill you if you were up to the task, but mostly, she wanted all of us to make the world better by understanding language, poetics, chronology, and discipline. She knew we were just kids, and that we would grow to become adults, and perhaps when we stumbled on a word misused we would know how to find its real meaning. And then do something with it, something creative, something that mattered.

Valerie Haas was that good. We owe her our respect for a lifetime of context. Carpe diem, wrote Horace. At thy call we gather. Godspeed, Miss Haas.

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For the original online version, please click-through the following link and scroll down to the bottom of the page:

A Latin Teacher: Classically Remembered

Time is the best teacher of all.  It causes us to rethink what we got wrong.  A teacher can offer perspective we never could have understood when it was offered.  If we are lucky, we live long enough to learn to rethink what was given.

National Latin Exam