Seeing It Through Their Eyes
The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery. – Mark Van Doren
Have you ever noticed that sometimes your greatest lessons come from the least likely sources?
Tick down the list of people you’d expect to influence your personal compass and shape the lens through which you look at the world. Your parents? How about a Pastor or Rabbi? A special coach? Maybe a college professor? There has to be a close friend or two, right? Those roles would make sense – after all, they’re the people who are supposed to be guiding us, for good or for bad. Now think about the people who have actually had the greatest impact on you. Any surprises?
I’ve got one. When I was in college, there was a friend who influenced me in small, but very profound, ways. He was the kind of student the William and Mary administrators would never include in their marketing brochures. He was also the kind of guy you’d warn your daughter to stay away from. But you – and they – would be making a mistake.
Mase was a fraternity brother of mine, and two years ahead of me in school. At least he started two years ahead of me. He was on the “five year plan,” so I got to spend a lot of time with him. William and Mary can be pretty button-down (lots of khaki and oxford cloth), but Mase went from t-shirt to flannel shirt, depending on the temperature outside. He spoke his mind, and if he didn’t like you, he’d tell you. To your face. With great delight. He drove a pick-up truck long before it was fashionable. He played rugby and listened to the Grateful Dead.
To say Mase was rough and tumble was an understatement. A friend was attacked by a Townie at the Dirty Deli (technically, the Prince George Deli) with a shard of glass from a broken pitcher. Mase sprung into action, overturning a table and hitting the largest guy in the room over the head with a glass pitcher. One of those heavy suckers. I’m sure there were a half dozen Townies who were haunted for weeks by the echo of his crazed laugh as they scrambled out the door.
One winter Mase and I went down to Merchant Square on DOG (Duke of Gloucester) Street for the annual Christmas ceremony called Grand Illumination. The ceremony begins with lighting candles in the windows of the Wren Building, on the eastern tip of the W&M campus. Candles (mostly electric) are lit in succession in the windows between there and the Capitol Building, precisely one mile away. Once the candles are all aglow – which is quite a site in itself – several bonfires are lit, and the festival begins. At each bonfire is a different group of performers: carolers, fife and drum corps, fiddlers, etc.
We arrived just as the candlelight was racing from one building to the next, and the people around us murmured with delight. As soon as the Capitol lights were lit, Mase’s eyes were darting through the crowd.
“What are you looking for?”
He pointed. A woman stood with her two kids, a boy and a girl. I guessed they were five and three.
I didn’t comprehend. “What about them?” I asked.
“Karl, this is the best part of Grand Illumination. You need to see it through their eyes. Adults look at this stuff and think it’s a nice tradition, it’s a great way to kick off Christmas. But if you see it through the eyes of a kid, it’s special. It’s magical.”
Before I could react, Mase was making a beeline over to the trio. I could see the kids grinning and the mother gave a nervous, but polite smile.
“Exuse me, ma’am, we’d like to borrow your kids.”
She arched an eyebrow warily and drew her kids close.
Mase grinned. “ Ma’am, your kids are waist-high and thigh- high in this crowd. That’s no way to see Grand Illumination. Let us put them on our shoulders.”
“You can stay with us,” he assured her. He gestured to the kids. “Come on.”
The kids bolted from her grip and reached out their arms to both of us. The woman started to protest, then shot me a panicked look.
I was tempted to say, “He’s not as crazy as he looks,” but merely shrugged my shoulders. I could tell she was holding her breath as I picked up her son. Her daughter was already squealing with delight on Mase’s shoulders.
“Let’s go!” he shouted, and off we went, with mom struggling – but determined – to keep up.
For the next two hours we had a blast. We sang Christmas carols. We stood at attention for the fife and drum corps. We took a vote on whether the fiddler was scary-looking (he was – it was unanimous). We sipped hot chocolate and shared what we wanted for Christmas. And we laughed until it hurt.
As we said our good-byes that night, Mase got a hard, moist-eyed hug from the mother. She thanked us both for giving her kids such a special night.
I’m sure within six months, it was a fond memory for Mase, but lost in a lot of other special moments. Mase gets more enjoyment out of the little things than anyone I know: a good steak on the grill, a beautiful sunset, or just the right amount of foam on a draft beer. It’s the way he lives life.
For me, that night remains a vivid memory. Seeing a spectacular event through the eyes of a child was special in it’s own right. But that night serves as a reminder for me to ask, “whose eyes should I be looking through to maximize the experience?” It also makes me challenge myself to notice beauty, and discover those amazing moments – every day.
Although we lost touch for a period of time, I wasn’t surprised to find out that Mase is a high school teacher and he coaches soccer and cross country. I’m pleased. He can impact hundreds of kids and give them a touchstone to carry with them so they can discover all that the world has to offer. Just like he gave me.
Next time you hear about the teacher or coach who looks like a bit of a hell-raiser, with a crazy gleam in his eye, take a closer look before you panic. And next time you find yourself looking at the world with a jaded eye, consider whose eyes you need to be looking through. Make it special. Make it magical.
Note: Mase serves as the inspiration for a character named Bo Robertson in my upcoming book Castro’s Shadow.