Born Ohiyesa, Charles Alexander Eastman was born in a buffalo hide tipi in 1858. At the age of 15, instead of remaining with the Sioux in Minnesota, he attended four different colleges, eventual graduating from Boston College as a doctor. He was also a great native writer and prophet. The following is a meditation of his that really struck home to me.
“The man who preserves his selfhood, ever calm and unshaken by the storms of existence – not a leaf, as it were, astir on a tree; not a ripple upon the surface of shining pool – his, in the mind of the unlettered sage, is the ideal attitude and conduct of life. If you ask him: ‘What is silence?’ he will answer: ‘It is the Great Mystery! The holy silence is His voice!’ If you ask: ‘What are the fruits of silence?’ he will say: ‘They are self-control, true courage or endurance, patience, dignity, and reverence. Silence is the cornerstone of character.’”
I cannot compare with this great man, but I also came from humble backgrounds in Newark, New Jersey. I had all the privileges of a white man but failed to recognize them until I entered graduate school at the age of 50 to become a high school history teacher.
Since then I have devoted my life to the improvement of my students, my friends, and those who I casually meet in my everyday life. When I became a teacher, I very quickly realized that to be a truly successful teacher, one had to listen to his students. It is very easy to stand at the head of a class and lecture on American history, getting lost in the fact that what the teacher knows is unimportant; it is what the student can glean from the teacher’s knowledge that is important.
Believe me, I was not perfect, but I will match my 20 years of teaching with anyone, because I listened to what my students were saying. In any classroom situation, there is downtime, when the students will talk amongst themselves. Even though I was sitting at my desk, by antennae were set on high and were all around the room. I was able to filter out the chatter and listen to what the students were saying about history, about me, and about other teachers.
I think it was this listening that encouraged me to begin a military history club that met early, 7:00 AM, where the students selected the curricula. Over the years, this club grew from five or six boys to 20-30 boys and girls. Over my 14-year high school teaching career, seven of my students were selected to attend one of the military academies or received full ROTC scholarships at other schools. One of the young women, I taught attended Annapolis, another received a full Navy ROTC scholarship and became a strong Marine leader.
I return to the idea of silence. If we use our brains to dominate a conversation or to prepare a response to another, we lose what knowledge is placed before us. This is knowledge that we can never reclaim.
Silence in our world is not just for spiritual meditation. It is for us to open our hearts and minds, listening to others, appreciating the vitality of all around us.
Thank you Ohiyesa for such a great reminder of how we can enrich ourselves and those around us.