Many years ago I made a pilgrimage to Woodall Mountain, Mississippi. I had heard stories of a wise monk draped in the cloak of Southern evangelism preaching from the mountain’s summit. According to the stories, during the summer months of June, July, and August, a monk, who spoke with gentleness and wisdom intertwined with intoxicated tidbits of misplaced hell, fire and brimstone, held counsel with despondent teachers. If you were willing to endure the blistering heat of the Mississippi summer to sit at his feet and listen, the story tellers were adamant that you would be blessed with a life-altering miracle. As a struggling second year teacher, I desperately needed a miracle, so I journeyed to Iuka. Mississippi and located the mountain.
I drove my 1979 Ford Fairmont up the steep rocky incline to the summit where I found an aging observation tower standing in a gravel circle. Not far from the tower there was a bench where a solitary figure reclined gazing out over the hardwoods and pines that were interrupted here and there by patches of farmland colored in various shades of green and brown. When I approached the bench, the man turned to me and motioned to a place on the grass at his feet. He looked very much like the Buddhist monks I had seen on television and in National Geographic magazine. His bald head signified his commitment to the Holy Life and his yellow robe, drenched in sweat from the merciless sun, represented his devotion to virtue; however, that was where the similarities to the television and magazine monks ended. The pressed black slacks under his robe made visible when he crossed his legs, his highly polished Santoni Oxfords, and the diamond and emerald rings that adorned the fingers of both hands spoke volumes about the Americanization of his commitments.
Once I was seated on the prickly sun parched grass, the monk began to speak. As he spoke, the sun sucked sweat bubbles from his bald head where they sparkled and sizzled for a brief moment before flowing in great droplets down the back of his neck, down the sides of his cheeks and down his forehead into his eyes. Watching him continuously wipe the sweat from his eyes, I remember thinking, I bet he wishes he hadn’t shaved his eyebrows. It didn’t take long before we were both scarlet faced and boiling in our sweat, but not once did his words falter. He spoke to me for three hours. His words flowed seamlessly from the wise and simple counsel of the bhikknu to the nostril-flaring indignation of the Southern evangelist and played as true as any infomercial I had ever heard. When finished speaking, he slowly licked his cracking sunburned lips as he studied me. “You are not buying any of that bulls#%$ are you?” he asked.
Thinking I had somehow offended him, I apologized profusely, but he raised an open hand to silence me. He reached inside his yellow robe and pulled out a rolled piece of goat skin and handed it to me. I remember recoiling from the rancid smell of the goat skin and thinking why would this monk offer me a very sharp cheese wrapped in goat skin. I untied the thin cord, and the goat skin unfurled over my hand. There was no cheese, but the rotted-feet-stench of Limburger cheese radiated from the 14 inch by 24 inch skin.
“I believe the list on the scroll will be more to your liking,” the monk said, his face also distorted by the foul odor. With his hands clasped prayerfully to either side of his nose, he bowed respectfully and hurriedly walked away disappearing between two young water oaks that led to a trail down the mountain.
The ten decrees hand printed on the goat skin were more to my liking. The simple commandments, especially written for educators, were perfect for my needs. I always thought it was uncanny, even a little unsettling, that the monk happened to have a scroll inside his robe tailored to my specific needs. How did he know I was a teacher? He never asked, nor did I volunteer the information. But, that is like dwelling on spilled milk; it doesn’t really matter how he knew. All that matters is that he shared the commandments with me and ultimately saved my teaching career.
Until now, I have never shared the commandments in their entirety with anyone, but the time has come to share. Maybe, there is an educator somewhere who needs a nudge or even a huge eye opening kick in the rear like I did. Maybe, there is an educator somewhere who is looking for a “silver bullet” or their own savior monk to right their ship. Or, maybe, there is someone who simply needs another list. Whatever the reason or the need, I believe the commandments are a difference maker; they were for me.
The Ten Commandments for Educators
- Thou shall slow down and take a deep breath before you react;
- Thou shall give audience to your “gut feelings.” If it doesn’t feel right or your gut feeling says “no,” don’t ignore the feeling. Take a step back, take a look from a different angle and call a friend;
- Thou shall not turn away from common sense;
- Thou shall not tear down a fence unless you know why it was built;
- Thou shall ask before any decision, “Is this what is best for children?”
- Thou shall not let pride or an omniscient point-of-view stand between you and knowledge. No one may be as smart as you or know half as much as you do, but it does no harm to listen;
- Thou shall not be reluctant to offer second chances least you be denied yourself. If you cannot give a child a second chance, don’t ask or expect one for yourself;
- Thou shall stand blessed before children. When you stand in front of a classroom of students, act like you want to be there;
- Thou shall not take yourself so seriously. Education is a serious business, but don’t take yourself too seriously. The art of play is the key to learning;
- Thou shall work with the precision, the skill, the focus and the mastery of the surgeon. As an educator you perform brain surgery every day; for Heaven’s sake GET IT RIGHT!
I kept these commandments with me everywhere I traveled as a teacher, and a year never passed that I did not take time to review them and do my best to apply them as a professional as well as in my personal life. The commandments are not a magical “silver bullet,” but they they are reminders of what it means to be a professional and the responsibilities and commitments that go along with being a professional. I have not been back to Woodall Mountain, but I like to believe the monk is still there every summer counseling young teachers and even veteran teachers when they are not too proud and smart to listen. To that monk in the Santoni Oxfords, I offer a heartfelt THANK YOU! You made a difference, and I will forever be grateful.
©Jack Linton, July 31, 2015