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On Matters of Fear and Courage

A Lion lay asleep in the forest, his great head resting on his paws. A timid little Mouse came upon him unexpectedly, and in her fright and haste to get away, ran across the Lion’s nose. Roused from his nap, the Lion laid his huge paw angrily on the tiny creature to kill her.

“Spare me!” begged the poor Mouse. “Please let me go and some day I will surely repay you.”

The Lion was much amused to think that a Mouse could ever help him. But he was generous and finally let the Mouse go. 

Some days later, while stalking his prey in the forest, the Lion was caught in the toils of a hunter’s net. Unable to free himself, he filled the forest with his angry roaring. The Mouse knew the voice and quickly found the Lion struggling in the net. Running to one of the great ropes that bound him, she gnawed it until it parted, and soon the Lion was free. 

“You laughed when I said I would repay you,” said the Mouse. “Now you see that even a Mouse can help a Lion.” 

 Now, who can tell me what the moral of this story is? 

As a first grade teacher, it is part of my job to teach students how to read and write. Statistically, children who don’t learn to read proficiently by the 3rd grade are four times likelier to drop out of school. 2/3 of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of 4th grade end up in jail or on welfare. To determine how many prison beds will be needed in future years, some states actually base part of their projection on how well current elementary students are performing on reading tests. So yeah, I think it’s safe to say that literacy in schools is a big deal. As a first year teacher, I was afraid of this huge expectation.

Coming in to school the first day, I was clueless. I literally had no idea what to expect. I didn’t understand what I was doing and was unsure of how to do it. Sure I had a lot of idealistic notions about how students should be taught and wrote up a paper even about my teaching mission and platform on such things as the purpose of schooling, the role and mission of the curriculum, the classroom community, the learning environment, etc. When asked the question, “Can all children learn?” I argued yes and formulated a response based on my favorite quote about teaching by Bruce Lee: A teacher is never a giver of truth – he is a guide, a pointer to the truth that each student must find for himself. A good teacher is a catalyst. I wanted to be that catalyst. Nevertheless, when it came time to finally stand up in front of my classroom and introduce myself for the first time, I was terrified. Nothing could prepare me for that moment.

How do you think the Mouse felt when she came across the Lion unexpectedly? Do you think she woke the Lion up on purpose? How do you think she felt when the Lion woke up and laid his huge paw angrily on top of her? What do you think the Lion was planning to do? Why?

When reading to my “kids” I’ve learned to make sure to always ask a lot of questions. It keeps them engaged with the text and allows them to participate in the reading process. By “thinking aloud” I am able to model for my students strategies a proficient reader uses when reading. The trouble I had starting out was finding the right questions to ask. I didn’t want story time to become an interrogation. Part of my goal was to get my students to learn to enjoy reading. In order to do this, I had to stop focusing so hard on teaching, and open myself up to learning as well. What would interest or excite me most about the story? What kinds of questions would I, as a 6 year old, be dying to answer? In the same way I was asking my students to put themselves in the shoes (or paws) of these storybook characters, I was finding myself behind the small desk of a first grader watching myself teach. The change was eye-opening.

I’m hungry. I wonder if the Lion was planning to eat the Mouse. Lions are so cool! I remember seeing one at the zoo last summer. They’re really big and kind of scary. I bet the Mouse was really scared when she saw the Lion. She was probably on her way home from work. When my mom comes home from work we usually go grocery shopping. One time, when I was at the grocery store I saw this really colorful lion …  

Sometimes I tell myself that the only difference between grade school and grad school is the letter e. It’s funny how our thoughts during class don’t change much as we get older. I’m still having a hard time sitting still, paying attention, and doing homework. In a lot of ways, I’m still a kid waiting to grow up. That being said, I’m a little scared of it. For me, part of growing up means recognizing that there are those around you that need you more than you need you. I realized that pretty quick my first few days on the job. Teaching is literally an around the clock, 24/7 gig. The biggest struggle I had was finding time to do anything for myself when there were so many things I had to worry about with regard to my class. Discipline for example, was not something I had really anticipated having to seriously think about. How was I going to properly manage a class of cute, but crazy first graders? Then there were grades, lesson plans, procedures, snack, recess, parents, specials, etc. There was just so much to take in all at once.

To be honest, I was a little overwhelmed. In my mind I felt like it was impossible to expect so much from one person. I felt like the Mouse, who suddenly found herself under the heavy paw of the Lion.

Why do you think the Lion let the Mouse go? Did he take the Mouse seriously when she said that some day she would repay him? It says that later in the story he was “caught in the toils of a hunter’s net.” What do you think the word “toils” means? When the Mouse heard the Lion, what did she decide to do? Why? 

When faced with difficulty, we all struggle and reach out for help, whether it be from a Lion or a Mouse. The fear we experience is universal, and the courage to face it, nominal. Since I’m a Leo, I like to think that I’m a fearless lion, unafraid of difficulty, too big for any obstacle. In this story though, even the King of the Jungle had to rely on the Mouse for assistance. I feel like there are times when we take on the role of “King” in our own “Jungle” in order to avoid having to deal with other people’s feelings or problems. We would rather focus on our own inconveniences than inconvenience ourselves with the difficulties of others. But why? Because it is easier to feign courage than to courageously admit that we are afraid. The idea of being helpless scares us. So we choose indifference. This was the case at least for me.

Maybe teaching isn’t for me. I should just do my time here and leave. At least I’ll get my masters and some work experience. It’s not hard or anything, I’m just over it. There are too many people around constantly looking over my shoulder. A teacher’s salary isn’t worth all of this interminable stress, worry, and effort. 

Facing our fears with indifference is easier because it means that we don’t really have to face them at all. Indifference does not have to admit weakness or defeat. It does not have to apologize or compromise. It centers itself in self-preservation. Survival of the fittest. Yet, I’ve found survival to be a rather lonely endeavor. It takes courage to assume full responsibility for yourself. To recognize the validity of another persons struggles in light of your own. To act out of generosity rather than out of selfishness. As it so happens, I’ve found indifference to be nothing more than another mask of cowardice. It sees what it wants to see and justifies itself through limited personal experience. My struggle has been in the liminality that separates instinct from indomitable courage. The difference between anxious fear and compassion.

Maybe I don’t know what I’m doing, but that’s okay. It’s just a sign that there is still a lot to be learned. I’m here to serve these kids, so I need to make sure that I always try my best. Sure, it can be intimidating at times and pretty tiring, but I know that every effort is worth it. If my students can put up with me, so can I.

Both the Lion and the Mouse had a choice to make in regard to the other. This fable could have ended much differently had opposite decisions been made. Even so, it can be hard to separate fear from courage during times of trouble. Consequentially, when in doubt, make an effort to always choose kindness, for a kindness is never wasted.

(Psst … That’s the moral of this story.)

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