Readers of NoContest.CA know that I spend a lot of time thinking about mental hygiene. This is a scary concept when you plumb it. Here’s why: You are the only one in charge of keeping your mind humming strong; and bad habits can be irreversible.
In the spirit of this month’s Easter season, here’s a story of how one teacher sought to redeem an angry and lazy lad:
This Easter weekend I have been contemplating, uncharacteristically, a verse from the Bible, Ephesians 4:30: “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed until the day of redemption.” On this verse the 19th-century evangelist Charles Finney sermonized: “If the Spirit leave you, you will have no heart to offer prevailing prayer, and if you attempt to pray, you will find that your mouth is shut, and if opened it will only be opened to mock God. And you will find as a matter of fact, that instead of being benefited you are only hardened by engaging in prayer.”
That remark reminded me of Sidney Bechet’s autobiography, “Treat It Gentle.” To me, the “It” is one’s muse, the source of one’s creativity. In his book the great clarinetist/saxophonist writes, “Oh, I can be mean — I know that. But not to the music. That’s a thing you gotta trust. You gotta mean it, and you gotta treat it gentle. The music, it’s the road. There’s good things alongside it, and there’s miseries. You stop by the way and you can’t ever be sure what you’re going to find waiting. But the music itself, the road itself — there’s no stopping that. It goes on all the time. It’s the thing that brings you to everything else. You have to trust that. There’s no one ever came back who can’t tell you that.”
Bechet tells the story of Buddy Bolden, a brilliant trumpeter whose love of showmanship made his muse abandon him. “You take someone that’s grinning and stomping and moving around on the stand where the music should be going — for the moment you’re lost from the music, you’re so busy watching him fool around. But you get his same record and try to listen to the music then, and there’s no music there.”
I remember the day when I learned about not grieving the holy spirit, about treating it gentle.
I was in ninth grade, French class. We were going over our homework and my teacher, Dr. P., noticed that, in an exercise in which we were supposed to rewrite present-tense sentences as conditional sentences, I had changed the verbs only, using quotation marks to indicate the missing words. She took my assignment, explained what I had done to the rest of the class, ripped it up, and noted that being lazy was no way to get ahead in life.
After the bell rang and the rest of the class had left, I told Dr. P. that if she embarrassed me like that again, I would kill her.
Not surprisingly, I was yanked out of Art class the next period. There was my “guidance counselor” and Dr. P. — no disciplinary people like the Vice Principal, and no cops. She told me that, just this one time, she would speak to me in English, not wanting there to be any misunderstanding as to what she needed to say.
Dr. P. was very serious, but without any anger or even sternness. “Mr. Basil, you have a fine mind. Right now you do. And only you are in charge of what gets inside of it, how it runs, how it thinks. I’m not in charge. Your parents are not in charge. Your friends are not in charge. Just you. You’re the gatekeeper. Cutting corners is lazy. If you keep it up, it will become a bad habit. And then you will no longer notice that this is what you do habitually. And then … you will no longer have a fine mind.”
That was it. The meeting couldn’t have lasted more than three minutes. No reprimand, no letter in my file, no call to Mom and Dad. (God knows how much trouble a student would get into making such a threat — even an obviously empty one — today.) – 12 April 09
Dr. P. had scared me, but not in the way I thought she was going to: I had never known until that moment in that small office that my mental hygiene was entirely in my care.
Dr. P. had also spared me, answering my anger with grace … and with words I could understand.