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Teaching as a Practice of Call and Response

By Kassi Cowles
Teaching as a Practice of Call and Response

When the teacher is ready, the student will appear. Or perhaps it’s the other way around: when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Or maybe both are true and fulfill a cosmic purpose: when the teacher and the student are ready, their paths will intersect and an alchemy of learning will occur. A transmission. A witnessing.
James Hillman reminds us of the myth of the call and the calling in his book The Soul’s Code. Each of us has been called forth into this world with a path to follow, a daimon or genius or spirit of fate that will never go away, although it may live within us unfulfilled. He writes, “we must attend very carefully to childhood to catch early glimpses of the daimon in action, to grasp its intentions and not block its way.”
What a crucial job it is then, to be a teacher. To be the seer and the hearer and the witness.
And maybe the cosmic chance to witness and transmit is more rare than we professional teachers would like to believe. Over the years I’ve had hundreds of young people in my classes but I’m sure that not all of them were my students. I think you’ll know what I mean when I say that there are a few people in each class, perhaps just one or two, with whom there is an absolute recognition, a clear channel, a connection that is not so much developed as it is activated upon meeting one another.
You know these souls are destined to be your students from the quality of their presence; they are brimming with it. You can feel when they look at you with their clear, bright eyes that you already know each other. I have had a handful of these students in my life, and on a few rare occasions I have been this student with teachers I was fortunate enough to recognize.
But when you are busy administering the ins and outs of your subject to groups of students, it’s easy to feel far away from grand notions of transmission and the alchemy of learning. It’s easy to get mired in the muck of the job and to forget that many of us were called forth into this mysterious work. This is a truth that I still feel, 14 years in: teaching is my calling. But who or what is calling me?
Let me tell you about Demi, the student who most recently reminded me of this ancient, fated contract between teacher and student. Demi, of course, is not her given Chinese name but it’s the name she chose for herself when she began her education in English, and it suited her because she was tiny and hidden in all the ways her name suggests.
She had a delicate androgyny, which is not uncommon in Chinese girls before they find ways to express their femininity through the confines of their school uniform. She was apologetic in stature, with a speaking voice so quiet I had to bring my ear as close to her face as was appropriate so I could discern what she was saying.
When I saw her walking through the halls, her brow was permanently furrowed in worry, like she was burdened with middle-aged problems. It was an impression reinforced by the briefcase she carried, a detail that still makes me smile now because it was such an anachronistic prop for this small Chinese girl, as if she’d been terribly miscast in the role of Business Man.
Despite her quietness, something in Demi called to me so loudly. It was, I now realize, her daimon, her destiny. I said her speaking voice was almost imperceptible, but her singing voice had a size and force that defied her quiet existence. She was trained in Peking Opera—it could just have easily been piano or violin that her parents had chosen for her, but it wasn’t. It was performing on stage, the very channel that allowed her to expand like ink in water. The Demi she presented to the world in her daily academic life was indeed only half of what existed so powerfully inside her small body. Her daimon was screaming to be unleashed, to move, to be seen.
I’m not sure that Demi’s parents knew that performing was the relentless spirit in her waiting to be realized, and that if she could forgo this highly academic education and immerse herself entirely in the arts, she could reveal her power. If only we could remove the obstacles in her way, she could show how she understood the world.
I don’t think Demi could have identified or articulated this for herself; it’s the kind of experience that alchemizes into truth when someone on the outside can see it. I have no doubt that the expression of anxiety that she wore each day was caused in part by the pain of incoherence between her inside desire and her outside circumstances. We all know adults who never aligned the call of their dreams with the context of their reality, those who never found their witness.
I attended to all my students in her class as best I could, but Demi was a special project for me. Her call was incredibly loud and persistent. If there was a way to help her manage the unsurmountable writing tasks so she could move and make and perform, I did it.
Because she was undeniably a dancer. She understood the world not through logic and language but with a somatic fluency that so few of us have or can understand.
I’m not sure my colleagues or her peers noticed this in the same way when they watched Demi perform—I suspect not. This is the mystery of the calling. It’s not something that everyone can hear.
During assessment time a colleague told me that he found her in his economics class seated at her desk, head bowed, palms together:
“What are you doing, Demi?”
“I’m praying.”
“Praying for what?”
“For my solo performance to go well.”
This endeared me to her all the more and solidified a profound understanding: the stakes were as high as they could possibly be. Her performance was as serious as a prayer to God in a country where God is hidden.
In the end, I didn’t teach Demi much in the way of content. It was a struggle to graduate her through the intense program of study she was in. But I feel a sense of completion knowing that she is studying performance in university—not business, but theatre.
Her truth rang clearly for me the whole time I knew her. In fact, I can still hear it now. When she is free to move and make and perform, she exists in the brightest and most resonant way. And the lightness of her being brightens and reveals the daimon in me, my calling to be a teacher who hears and sees and witnesses.

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07/28/2020 - Elinor
This is an inspiring way to look at teaching. Thank you. I agree it is much more a vocation of "unlocking", "encouraging", "witnessing", "allowing" and "revealing" than instructing and marking.



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