2015  May 16

The Teacher’s Lunch Box

I’ve been lucky to have had great teachers and mentors. Society tends to think of teachers as different from conventional leaders in society -- and more like “caregivers.” I’ve seen some who act like the latter -- sort of almost as surrogate parents. That’s a valid form of value, certainly, within the educational spectrum. And I’ve also seen others who lead their own lives in ways that have inspired me no differently than a few of the great CEOs. I was wondering what’s similar about them, and realized that it’s about having a clear notion of accountability -- accountability to oneself, and accountability to the organization (or discipline) that they represent. Getting to see accountability up close is a great thing to get to learn -- I think it’s actually the only way to learn accountability, because it’s a form of practice that you need to watch (and smell) up close. By watching it in action, you question your own actions and need to ask yourself, “Am I living up to as a high a standard as this living, breathing person who is giving his/her life its all?”

Sometimes the only way to learn something great, is to experience what is less great. I had that opportunity to learn when I was a PhD student at MIT in the 80s, and dropped out of the program mid-way. I vowed to never go back because I had lost my faith in the educational system. Looking back, I find it interesting that I spent most of my career in higher education -- and I track it back to one professor I had along the way. He was my PhD advisor in Japan, Akira Harada. He’s the one who convinced me, just by watching him in action, that I should go after a PhD again.

Harada reminded me of what a great professor is about: someone who is curious and loves when others are curious, too. But he also knew how to stay on deadline; it was a combination of being able to diverge and converge. He loved being with younger people, as his life was shaped as a young designer working under the famed Kenji Ekuan, who recently passed away. I always enjoyed observing how Harada mentored students -- he was never anybody’s father figure. He was just someone who strove to be as energetic, and as enthusiastic as his graduate students. One could see clearly that his happiness came from his students’ successes -- and not from his own actions. In essence, he was being a good manager and leader -- and not the typical professor who was all about him/herself.

The month I was about to graduate, he hosted a small party. It was super noisy in the room, but he sat next to me and started to tell a story to all of us that I hadn’t heard before.

He talked about growing up as a child during World War II as the son of a wealthy banking family. Nobody had any food; it all went to the soldiers. But his family was wealthy, so he happened to have rice. In Japan, rice is the essential thing in a person’s life; the soul of Japan is rice. There’s this little pickled plum called umeboshi, and, every day, my professor got a bentō box (a Japanese lunchbox) from his mom with a bed of white rice and a red plum in the middle, like the Japanese flag.

One day when he was in 1st grade, he forgot his lunch at home, so he went to his teacher and told her. He said, “Teacher, teacher. I forgot my lunch at home!”

To which his teacher replied, “Well, I made too much lunch this morning. So please come to my desk later and we’ll have lunch together.” At lunchtime, he went to his teacher’s desk. She pulled out her bentō box, opened it, and there were two tiny potatoes inside. She said to him, “Look, I made too much,” to which he happily replied, as a 1st grader would, “No problem! I’ll help you, teacher!”

He remembered relating this story as a 4th grader to his classmates, and cried in front of the class -- because he was so thankful for his teacher’s actions, which at the time he never really understood as he was just a hungry 1st grader that day. I thought that was an important story; it made me think and believe in teaching as a form of “intellectual philanthropy.” It’s about doing something good for others, without expecting anything in return.

In my later life as a manager and leader, I recognized it as an important quality when working with/in-service-of other people -- as someone who is generous, and who can consciously give more than they take for themselves. I guess Greenleaf’s “servant leadership” is not so different in concept, but the words never quite fit for my taste. My thinking instead always goes back to the bentō box ... and questioning whether I might have the moral strength (or just confidence) to give away one of my tiny potatoes knowing that I might be hungry myself. And meanwhile to get out of my comfort zone to hunt for more potatoes (with confidence and tons of self-doubt) ...

Okay, I’ve passed my ten-minute blogging time limit. Good luck with your respective potato huntings! -JM

Teaching is a kind of intellectual philanthropy.

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