Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Paolo's Quest

“…there was no joy in his heart. Dreams came to him and restless thoughts…the vessel was not full, his mind was not satisfied, his soul was not at peace, his heart was not content.”
from Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

I was at the beginning of my teaching career, and things were not going well. My wife had been in a major car accident, totaling the second car we had purchased with the last of our meager savings. So we were carpooling to work; I dropped her off at her school near downtown Los Angeles before traveling down the 10 freeway to Santa Monica where I taught. The accident happened before school even started, and since that September, I had been hit from behind on the freeway twice, and we were constantly one step ahead of major breakdowns. Financially, we were devastated, living on credit, trying to pay off student loans.

My classes were difficult—one group was nearly impossible to control during the last period of the day. I was stressed, broke, and desperate.

Paolo was a student in my tenth grade class. He failed everything, never turned in any assignments and handed me blank tests in class. He sat in the back of the room with what I thought was a defiant look on his face. He did not seem to connect with other kids, and I saw him staring out the window when he was supposed to be writing in his journal. No parents returned my calls, and no one seemed to care. When I tried to speak with him after school, he didn’t show.

One day, during my preparation period, someone knocked on my door. Paolo. He had a greasy, stained grocery bag in his arms. He took the seat next to my desk and unrolled the bag. “Have you read these books?” he asked.

One by one, he pulled numerous volumes from his bag. Lao Tzu, Alan Watts, Sun Tzu, Shunryu Suzuki, and titles such as Buddhist Meditation, The Way of Zen, and The Wisdom of Zen Masters. He had roughly forty books in his possession covering every angle of Eastern philosophy.

“No, I haven’t read much in that area.”

“You are a teacher,” he said. “You need to read them.”

“Shouldn’t you be in class somewhere?” I asked.

“I’m not learning anything in that class. This is more important.”

I insisted that he go to class. “Leave the books with me and I will look them over.”

That night, I started reading, and I was hooked. Eastern philosophy spoke to my suffering, the futility in trying to control my life. I constantly thought of the future, anxieties, struggles with my past. In the books I learned to live in the moment.

Paolo showed up again in my classroom during my prep period. “Look,” I said to him, “you can’t keep coming here when you’re supposed to be in class.”

“Did you read them?”

“Are you listening to me?”

“Mr. Martin, don’t you think it’s incredible?”

“Paolo, why don’t you study for my class, or use some of this knowledge in your papers? You’re a smart guy.”

“I’m not interested in grammar or writing papers. I want to read more books like this,” he said, gesturing to the stack on my desk. “Can you read them so we can discuss?”

I agreed if he would come to see me only outside of class time. That was the deal. And so we began our independent study, student and teacher, teacher and student, the lines becoming blurred.

“You know what I like to do?” he said one early spring day with the afternoon sun slanting through the classroom windows. “I take my bike down to the beach and ride up the storm channels under the city.”

“Paolo, do you know how dangerous that is?”

“Hey, as long as it doesn’t rain, I’m fine. I ride up under the city, and sometimes I park my bike, turn off my flashlight, and climb up to the drains and vents and pop out. No one even notices me, and there I am—in Beverly Hills, Culver City—once I made it to downtown L.A.”

I did not know if that was possible, but it sounded like a good story. “Promise me you won’t do that again,” I said. “It’s dangerous.”

“Life is dangerous, Mr. Martin. Life is impermanent, and we all will die sometime. It’s in the books.”

Another day, I asked him about his family. “My mom and dad don’t talk.”

“To you?”

“To me or to each other. My dad’s Sicilian, a real asshole. He used to beat the crap out of me.” He noticed the look of apprehension on my face. “Don’t worry. You don’t have to call the child abuse hotline or anything. He tries anything with me, I kick his ass. Last time I knocked him pretty good. He leaves me alone now.”

We studied the books all spring. I asked him to write about how he would apply what he had read to his life. He wrote some incredible papers, and I credited his class grade for that. Mine was the only class he passed at the end of the year.

Life turns, and we cannot control it. We can only live in the moment; try to make the most of what we have, wherever we are. I turned in my resignation for a variety of reasons, none of which I disclosed to anyone. Mainly, the year had simply depleted my resources, and I needed to find a better position.

Paolo, too, decided to move on. “Where will you go?” I asked him.

“I’ll transfer to Venice High School,” he said, his features stoic and intense. I knew that it was his way not to show emotion, and those stares from the early days in my class were not ones of defiance, but of intense scrutiny.

On the last day of school, he came to my empty room to say goodbye. He simply walked up to me and offered his hand. “Aren’t you afraid about going to a new school?” I asked him, feeling my own fear and trepidation about the future.

“No. Remember, everything changes. That’s the rule. You can’t control it. You just go.”

“Good luck,” I said. He turned. “Paolo?” He stood silhouetted for a moment in the doorway of the classroom. “What made you bring me those books to read? Why did you pick me?”

“You’re the teacher,” he said. “I knew you would know what to do.”

“The way that can be spoken is not the true way,” Lao Tzu wrote at the start of the Tao Te Ching. The more I learn, the more I know that I am ignorant. But learning, like life, is a journey, and we must follow the path, through the dark tunnels of that ignorance, until we surface into the light.


  1. It's amazing what you can learn when you least expect it. Life is like a journey, but fortunately we don't always have to take that journey alone.

  2. I like this part "But learning, like life, is a journey, and we must follow the path, through the dark tunnels of that ignorance, until we surface into the light." In some ways it's easy to see the truth in it. Before we learn we are in the dark and then there's kind of that moment when the proverbial light bulb turns on and then there's understanding.

  3. Thank you both for your comments.

    Today, we finished reading The Odyssey in one of my classes. Of course, it is all about the journey. We are all Odysseus longing for Ithaca, but in fact, as Constantine Cavafy wrote, Ithaca is the journey, and we must relish every minute of it.

    And so we go on...

  4. What a story.

    It seems like you could find a wide readership with it.

    Have you ever read "The Sun" magazine?

  5. Thanks K and Fauna for your comments.

    K, I am an avid reader of The Sun, and I have submitted pieces to Sy Safransky, the editor, many times. This one might fly because he always takes a Buddhist philosophical position in the magazine. Thanks for the suggestion; I'll give it a try.

  6. I've been reading "The Sun" for 12 years and you're right, Paul, it's exactly the kind of story they frequently publish. Have you ever thought of collecting your wonderful personal stories and putting them together into a book? ("A Teacher's Stories"). I especially liked the one about your uncle. If you haven't ever thought about it, please sometime do. It would be a wonderful book to read.

  7. Thank you for your words of encouragement, Annie. I feel as if I should try to find a home for some of the stories. The economic climate might have some bearing on how open to submissions a publisher or magazine editor might be these days. However, I will try to work up the nerve to send out again.

  8. Brilliantly told, and definitely the opening chapter of the "A Teacher's Stories."

  9. Thank you, Michael. It is good to hear from you. I appreciate the encouragement.

  10. It's like one of those stories from Chicken Soup for the Teacher's Soul. Keep inspiring! :)

  11. Vanidoza, thank you for the comment and the comparison to the "Chicken Soup" stories. These days with all the negative stuff about teachers and teaching, I feel a need to publish stories about positive moments in the classroom. They do happen more frequently than the bad things. If one is called to it, teaching is a great profession with rich, although non-monetary rewards.


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