Recently I attended a workshop at the American Corner, St. Francis College, which was conducted by an American lady, Naomi Ackerman. She and her friend Vanessa were part of the ‘Avdot Project’. Ackerman began by explaining the word ‘Avdot’ meant ripples in Hebrew, and that she along with her friend worked with juvenile delinquents from unprivileged communities back in America. The purpose of the workshop was to help one find one’s voice by the use of theatrics and the performance arts.
Ms. Ackerman was speaking to an audience of teaching and non-teaching staff of a few colleges that day. She started off by asking everyone to write about themselves with sentences beginning with ‘I am ….’ She wanted to know how her listeners saw themselves in various roles they played in life, and how those labels and tags defined them as human beings. After this activity she spoke briefly about how hard it can be to communicate one’s real selfhood to the world. The problem of communication persists despite the advances made by humankind in every field of knowledge. She even pointed out that by communication she didn’t mean something big, but something quite small. She meant the day to day interactions we have that, though seemingly insignificant, define our relationship with the world we live in.
We were shown a few videos of her work with African American girls who were incarcerated and were on their way to well-being, and get a chance at life that they never had. We got a glimpse of the progress made by a couple of girls, and their hopes and dreams for the future. By this time the name of the project, and the ripple effect it aimed at, was clear to us.
Ackerman had already had a session with our students and remarked of how our students were quite different from the girls she is used to. Here she saw that our students had no problems expressing themselves and were quite articulate, but they need to deal with a lot of negative voices, from within and without, hampering their potential. The American children with troubled backgrounds, on the other hand, have deep problems in communicating their dreams and hopes to the world they live in, and they resort to either cutting off communication with others or develop a nasty attitude. This unpleasantness is something that Ackerman was familiar with in her work, and she even remarked how, in contrast, Indians are good at hiding their bitterness under the veneer of politeness.
At the end of presentation we went up to Naomi to have a brief chat with her. I asked her if the ripples or ‘Advot’ is in anyway related to the concept of Tikkun-ha-Olam. She answered in the positive. Tikkun-ha-Olam is a Jewish concept that views the world/universe as broken and in need of restoration. The spiritual purpose of every human being is to participate in the reconstruction of a broken world by good deeds. Even the tiniest deed matters in the context of the grand scheme of repairing of this fallen world. It would be a little ripple in the vast ocean that is in no way insignificant or unimportant.
I have seen this being done by a lot of people who might have never even heard of Tikkun-ha Olam. Most of us lose perspective looking at the huge sea of troubles, and forget our duties in the limited scope we have. I have realized in my experience of teaching that this job is about more than a mere transfer of information from teacher to student. I noticed the senior faculty of how they connect with students on a level that I as a novice find interesting. The respect and warmth they receive from the students is spontaneous, and it is clear that their relationship extends beyond classroom instruction.
As younger faculty it might be hard for some of us to make sense of sayings such as,“We should treat the students as our children,” when we hear it from more experienced teachers, but now I sort of get what they were getting at. It is easy to dismiss unruly students as ‘bad students’, but it takes a lot more to connect with them and listen to what they have to say. This isn’t something like instant-coffee. We wont transform into excellent communicators overnight. It might take years for us to get to that level of rapport with the students. For now, I guess we can begin by working on creating little ripples.