April 23, 2010

One Uninspiring Lesson about Inspiration

The lesson was supposed to be about inspiration. Who inspires you? How do you inspire others? In the segment of the film we watched yesterday, Mandela asks the captain of the Rugby team how he inspires his team. They talk together about leading by example. Today I posed the question: Who inspires you? And the answers I received were more fitted to the question: Who tells you what to do? I half-expected this cultural difference, but I did not prepare to explain the difference between two. As I stood at the board, the words “Tell”, “Influence”, and “Inspire” written in all caps, I struggled to explain how inspire is somehow self-created, even though it comes from others. It was not well thought-out and the three students who had shown up for class frowned disapprovingly.

I put down the shovel and posed a new question: How do you lead by example? I told them about my time as captain of the swim team, arriving early, practicing hard and staying late. They approved and told me some experiences with siblings and classmates that illustrated their comprehension. I made a reference to Mandela's assertion that he was being paid too much and that he would donate 1/3 of his paychecks to charity to set an example of generosity. The two out of three students who had seen the movie nodded along. I asked them if government officials should be paid a lot of money, hoping to spark a conversation about responsibility. And at first, it went there. Yes, government officials need high salaries because they have important jobs with many responsibilities. Should they have big houses and nice cars? I asked, hoping to spur a discussion about limits and maybe tap into Marxian frustrations. Perhaps it is here that I went awry.

The student who had been obviously studying for an exam during the entire conversation said, yes, as long as it's not corruption money. I countered with a smile and, how do you know if it's corruption money? The conversation continued timidly for about 10 minutes. I was trying to ask them about how government officials lead by example, for better or for worse. I don't think my message was clear.

After class, the student who had been studying came up to me and said: I don't think you should talk about corruption because that other student is in the military. This I knew, but since we had talked about corruption during nearly every classtime prior to this one, I immediately went on the defense. If he is uncomfortable, he can say something. Mid-sentence, it occurred to me that perhaps this student was really saying freedom of speech isn't the same here. I took a verbal step back, oh, I shouldn't talk about corruption? The student nodded and left. My face flushed and panic swept my body. So many times we are cautioned about that topic. Even though I am certain that I said nothing specific about Cambodian government, the possibility that I offended students (or put them in a vulnerable place) made me want to hide in a dirty bathroom (which I did for about 30 seconds between classes).

The lesson was supposed to be about inspiration. Instead, it was a reminder that this is still Cambodia.