Thursday, April 25, 2013

Teaching and the Butterfly Effect

Chaos Theory tells us that the movement of a butterfly's wings can affect weather patterns on the other side of the world.  Henry Adams offered similar idea when he said that "teachers affect eternity; they can never tell where their influence ends."

Here's a potent example that happened, poignantly, just a few weeks before I leave teaching:

Kirubel and me
First:  A woman I met twenty years ago in a poetry class--Carmen Gimenez Smith--was coming to our campus as a visiting writer.

As so:  I taught her memoir, Bring Down the Little Birds, in which Carmen explores her mother's interior life by writing her mother's imaginary journal entries.

And then:  I assigned my students to write three journal entries as though they were written by one of their parents.

And then:  When my student Kirubel started to write from her father's point of view, she realized that she knew his stories, but not his feelings.

And so:  She sat down with her father to talk about his rough childhood in Ethiopia with a cruel step-mother.

As he talked:  He began to illuminate his feelings more keenly.  While he could not excuse his step-mother's abuse, he realized she had been so young--only 19--when she became his step-mother.  And in short order she gave birth to eight more children.  As he spoke, he began to feel like he wanted to call his mother who was now old and ill.  He hadn't talked to her in years.

As so:  He called her. 

And:  Across continents, they talked for a long time.  Son told Mother how he felt.  Mother told son she'd always wanted to ask for forgiveness but didn't know how.

Later:  Kirubel's father told her he felt lighter, freer.  He was glad that he and his mother had talked about something that had been weighing on them both all these years.

And three days later:  His mother died.

And so:  The butterfly flapped its wings in a poetry class.  Twenty years later--through the empathic gift of stories--a daughter has connected more deeply to her father.  And her father can rest knowing there is nothing left unsaid.


Dan Brook said...


I've always believed that teaching, as well as writing, is a faith-based endeavor, because we might occasionally get to witness these Kirubelian phenomena, but most of the time we never see the effects of the butterfly's flapping. Sometimes we don't even see the butterfly at all. But no matter; it flaps nevertheless!

Kate Evans said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kate Evans said...

Thanks, Dan. Such a nice way to put this!