Teaching and Telling

Pablo G. Pando/Flickr
Pablo G. Pando/Flickr

One morning last April, a woman in the Asturian city of Avilés lifted her seven-year-old daughter in her arms and climbed out a window of her fifth-floor apartment and onto the ledge, still holding the girl. The child might not have understood her mother’s intentions at first, but on the ledge she did. “No, Mamá, no!” witnesses say they heard the child crying out. Some pedestrians below tried to reassure the mother and dissuade her from throwing herself and her child off, but the attempt was in vain. Without a word, she jumped.

How often do people sense the danger of impending violence? The girl’s parents were separated. Her father, who had been fighting the mother’s demands and accusations in prolonged legal battles and who had been physically attacked by his father-in-law, had told his lawyer that his ex-wife and her family would either end his life or harm his daughter in their attempts to keep him from seeing her. Unfortunately, declared the man’s lawyer, he was right.

The girl’s father had been on his way that morning to pick up his daughter for a court-authorized vacation. Instead of going on an Easter holiday with the girl, the father spent the time in the hospital, at his daughter’s side. She had been in critical condition at first but quickly improved and was soon out of danger. Meanwhile, a judge had already reversed a previous ruling and stripped custody from the mother, who had also survived the fall. Practical, legal considerations must have necessitated this immediate dictum, because the mother died in the hospital a week later, before she could be charged with attempted murder.

A magazine article I read about governmental measures in the United States for protecting women from domestic violence describes the case of a woman who, like many women, still feared her ex-partner, although she had left him after years of abuse. She knew he would kill her, she told her caseworkers. She was so certain that he would track her down no matter where she was that she refused a room in a women’s shelter because she would rather die in her own home. And that was where her ex killed her, entering her house despite police being at the scene.

According to the article, the woman did not feel anything like the sudden chill of foreboding, but instead a grinding certainty of the only possible end to the persecution and violence that had been ongoing for years.

Other people, however, seem to have no inkling of what is in store from a friend, partner, or family member who, in a fit of fury, attacks them. I know of cases where violence erupted that must have surprised both victim and aggressor. A young man shook his stepfather in a rage at the older man’s taunting. A grown man bashed his brother over the head with a heavy glass ashtray during an argument. Twenty years earlier, one of these same two had lifted a bottle and threatened the other in a dispute. A father let loose at his grown son a tirade of insults, and the son, rather than walk away as usual, used the father’s own walking stick to beat him over the head. This young man and his brother later exchanged angry words and then came to blows over the incident. These are not the only cases that I know of, just the cases that come first to mind, in part because in each situation, someone deeply critical of the violent behavior of another was guilty of his own violent reaction. Rather than “Forgive them for they know not what they do,” one feels inclined to pity them because they do know what they do.

The difficulty in dealing with anger, whether it is slow-burning or comes in blinding flashes, is nothing new, but classes in managing anger are. Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler starred in a 2003 film, Anger Management, about such a class. The movie was a comedy, but overwhelming anger is a very serious, age-old problem. So how does one control one’s anger? Around the time the movie came out, I heard from a friend whose grown son had reproached him for not teaching him how to deal with anger. How sad, I thought, the one blaming the other for his own shortcomings. Because adults can see themselves, see the rough edges, and work to smooth them. Isn’t that what being adult means—recognizing what you are and either living with it or changing?

Parents, however, do have a duty toward their children. Not to produce a perfect person but to provide models that the children, in the end, will either accept or not. Such helpful teaching is a boost toward being the responsible moral person we all admire. A helpful boost is not everyone’s luck, but even someone who as a child was not told what is right or wrong, acceptable or not, but who as an adult recognizes the difference, is responsible for acting in accordance.

My acquaintance and his son came to my mind again recently when I was doing an exercise with my advanced English class. The students listened to an audio of another student doing one of the speaking tasks in the English exam that they would one day attempt. In the task, the speaker must compare two photos. One photo showed a coach talking to a group of weary young soccer players, about 10 years old, apparently trying to inspire them during a break in play. The other showed a lawyer addressing a jury. The instructions were to talk about what the two speakers might be explaining and what problems they might have. The model student gave a model answer. After suggesting what both speakers wanted to achieve—motivating players in one instance and persuading a jury in the other—the student then addressed the problems the two speakers might face. “In both photos I imagine the explanation is vital. The coach wants his team to go back on the pitch and win the match while the barrister wants to win her case by persuading the jury to reach a verdict of not guilty. I think both speakers have very similar problems because their success depends entirely on the words they use although the outcome is something they have no direct control over.”

Yes, I thought. We all seek to influence people in ways big and small, but we cannot control the outcome. What is teaching but telling? Yet telling is not enough. Teaching is telling that sinks in. And that kind of teaching, as the model student pointed out, is both within our hands and out of our grasp.

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Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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