Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Teachers Among Us; Teachers Within Us

ho is the last person you'd expect to change you; to transform your thinking? What do they sound like?
What do they look like?

For me, it was "a research professor." Dr. Ada Mui , however, is nothing like the dry, monotone figure I anticipated. Professor Mui teaches "Social Work Research" at Columbia and is a friendly, middle-aged, Chinese woman. At the start of our first class last Tuesday, she greeted us enthusiastically, joking about the bad rap research often gets. Professor Mui not only teaches, but is also a hard-hitter in the research field -  recognized as "one of the leading social gerontologists in cross-cultural research." She specializes in the field of gerontology and has published several articles on productive aging, age-friendly community, self-care, family care giving, medical care, immigration, psychological well-being, and much more. She is also a Fellow of the Gerontological Society of America and has received several, prestigious awards and scholarships for her work. Click here to visit her website. Quite simply, Professor Mui is incredible and I knew that after one class.  She's passionate about her work and, by the end of that first class, I actually felt excited about the prospect of designing a research project. Now that's impressive!

Professor Mui will also be facing blindness in the next few years, as she lives with a degenerative eye disease. Immediately, I found myself thinking "hey, if this lady can come to a new country, learn English well enough to become this accomplished, stand in front of us, teach an intensive course, work a crowd like it's nobody's business, and kick some serious ass....sky's the limit." Somewhere in that first class, she briefly referred to her disability as "my challenge." I've been sitting with that ever since.

Because don't we all have "our challenge?" Mine's called Spondylitis and this summer I truly saw what I'm up against. Yes, it rocked my world. Yes, I grieved and yes, I feel scared about my future whenever I let my mind go there. I saw that this disease is very real. It's vicious at times, it doesn't ask permission, but it is my challenge. Since Tuesday, though, I've been actively trying to view my challenge as matter of factly as Professor Mui views hers. After all, Spondylitis cannot own me if I own it first.

Everyone in this world has a challenge - everyone - and, if they say they don't? I'd suggest steering clear (or reporting it to the government because you may have found signs of aliens). In my eyes and through the pens of the greatest writers, struggle has always been synonymous with humanity:

"If there is no struggle, there is no progress." - Fredrick Douglass

"Once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle, you are equipped with the basic means of salvation."  - Tennessee Williams

"Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

"A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us." John Steinbeck

"There's always got to be a struggle. What else is there? That's what life is made of. I don't know anything else. If there is, tell me about it."  - Van Morrison

 Okay, you get the point.  You must get through the storm to appreciate the rainbow...what doesn't kill us makes us stronger...it's been said a million times and in a million ways, but in my opinion, it's never been said quite as simply (and perhaps as unintentionally) as Professor Mui put it that day. There are all kinds of challenges - in all shapes, sizes, durations and depths. Struggle doesn't care about your agenda. It doesn't care if you're Jewish or Muslim, black or white, rich or homeless. It will find you. We can cry about it (crying is okay). We can get angry as hell. We can hide, but when all of that's over we have a choice. If we wish to truly make something of these lives, I believe we must eventually seek the purpose. Purpose is everything.

So what is your challenge? What does it feel like? Has it forced you to change your plans? How? What have you learned from it? Who has helped you through it?  

Whatever it looks like, own it. Tell about it to anyone who cares to listen. If you construct your challenge as purposeful, then couldn't we all be here for each other? Instead of dwelling on the unfairness of our lots, pitying the poor, looking down on our neighbors...could we learn from each other's personal struggles as if they were gifts set among us? Maybe those living with the greatest hardship - the pain that's simply unimaginable to most of us - maybe they're actually out greatest teachers. Whether they're premier scholars teaching at Columbia or limping nameless through the subway, they're all teachers. I believe it's a workable scheme intended to keep us all moving forward and, most of all, I believe we're all in it together.



  1. Maya,

    What a beautiful, insightful tribute to Prof. Mui (or Prof. Ada as she likes to be called!). Oddly enough, I'm sitting in her class right now. In discussing longevity, we stumbled into a really touching conversation about aging, fear, and her eye condition. When she was diagnosed, she stepped back and reevaluated what it would mean for her to live a happy life. She set a goal of writing 10 books before going blind and I wanted to share with your readers that she has already completed 7 !!!! Go Team Mui and Team Maya! You are an incredible inspiration to me not only as a person flourishing in the face of physical hurdles, but as a writer, a classmate, and a friend.

  2. Wow. What a brilliant and inspiring post! In sharing such thoughtful ideas, you're also being an amazing teacher to all of us. Professor Mui seems like such an inspiring person to have in your life.
    Thanks so much for sharing, and I agree with Melody above-Go Team Maya:)

    Kate xxx

  3. I agree. Once I owned 'my challenge' and accepted it as a part of my life I could move forward. I spent a lot of time thinking I could wish it away or even push it away. It was really hard to accept in the beginning that I had a chronic illness. I'm only in my 20's so that was even more difficult to accept. Now that I own it, I can see how it's making me stronger and happier. Thank you for this beautiful post and for reminding me that there are always rainbows at the end of the storm.

  4. Melody: Your comment couldn't mean more to me. When I read it, I got teary. I hope you know your inspire me just as much and your support throughout the birth of this blog has been crucial. I'm so glad you get to experience Professor Ada too - I'm in her class as we speak and I'm in love. You are so wonderful and thanks again for your comment - it means so much.

    Kate: My love! I'm so glad you liked the post. You should know you've helped me reach this level of acceptance and understanding. I know that together we will only discover new ways to cope. When you visit, you can totally come meet Professor Mui! You'd love her. And Go Team Kate! <3

    Em: So nice to hear from you. I think so many of our stories are similar and it's incredibly comforting to hear that this post speak to you. I agree, it's very hard to accept (especially when we're young). I can't say I'm entirely there yet...it's a "forever process"...but we learn so much because of "our challenges." Thank you so much for reading and for your wonderful comment <3

  5. Thank you for introducing me to Prof. Mui. You have read my blog, so you know I agree completely with all you wrote. These people we meet, like Mui, are great gifts to us, just as we are gifts to others, just as you are a gift to me, and for THAT I thank you as well.

  6. Diane: I'm so glad you appreciate her as much as I do. This was only my second week in her class, but I have a feeling there is more wisdom to come! Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your words - your writing is also a gift in my life.