the lion’s other name

In A Primate’s Memoir, Robert Sapolsky tells a story I can’t shake. I think it has something to teach me.

It’s his memoir of years in Africa conducting neuroscience research on baboons, which involved a lot of hanging nose-to-nose with species – and people – far different from he. One such person was Rhoda, a woman half-Masai and half-Kikuyu, whose heritage meant that she understood the outside world better than most of her tribe despite having been raised within the legendary insularity of Masai culture.

Sapolsky asks Rhoda if what he has learned from his new Maa dictionary is true: that there are two names for “lion” in her language. The one he had been taught (by her) was actually the fake name, to be used out in the open. But the real name was only to be said in the safety of your house, at night. That the Masai believed that if you say the real name outside, the lion will hear its name and come and eat you.

Howzabout it, Rhoda., is that true? Yes, it is true: you should not say that name; she gets visibly itchy each time I do. Aw, come on, Rhoda, the lion isn’t going to come. Yes, I have seen that many times, it will come and eat you. Aw, come on, really. Yes, I heard that it will happen.

I push harder. Come on Rhoda, are you telling me that the lion will hear its name, you know that lions cannot understand that, they wouldn’t come.

Yes, they will come.

The lion understand Masai language?

Finally, she gets irritated, and in one petulant paragraph sums up the two worlds she knows about and how she balances them.

“The lion cannot understand its name. Anyone who has been to school knows that a lion cannot understand the language of people…But if you say that word too many times outside, the lion will come and eat you.”

The subject was closed, as far as she was concerned (pp 51-52).

On the surface, this is a straightforward story of how deeply culture has its teeth in us: how even when we have trained our rational minds and become enlightened, we remain in thrall to the earliest messages we were given about the way the world works. We would do well, it seems, not to leave the “subject closed” – to ventilate the closed closets of our minds and our souls, open them to the clear light of reason and research and give up our old superstitions.

But the story sticks with me, I think, because of the petulance with which she acknowledges her own contradiction (or, maybe her “negative capability,” Keats’ lovely phrase for the capacity to hold on to opposing truths without rushing to resolve dualisms or shorting out your sanity).  Why is she reluctant to give up what she knows cannot be true?

Perhaps, I wonder, because it is true. True in a different way than can be demonstrated: true because it is wise, and innate, and deeply felt in a place that includes her mind but is not exhausted by it.

Her we are entering the realm of “body-knowing.” I explore elsewhere Grumet‘s take on the phenomenological notion that “the world is answer the body’s question” – that it “arranges itself around our hopes, needs, and possibilities, real and imagined.” It’s a powerful idea for reasserting the value of subjectivity in a culture that finds it increasingly suspect. But Sapolsky’s story helps me see just how deeply our embodied knowing about the world shapes our engagement with that world – and how well-served we are by holding on to our deep, primal knowings, even when they are called out as irrational or counter to “best practice” or just plain not-valued.

I think the apparent esoterics of what is known and not-known actually have vivid application to teacher education. Teaching is increasingly considered a closed science by the teacher education and assessment models that have become nearly hegemonic (as the closing credits of Waiting for Superman have it, “we know what works”).  Any body-knowing that the prospective teacher might bring to the work in this environment is suspect at best and counter-revolutionary at worst. Our own experiences of having been taught – in our culture of compulsory education, the very experiences that formed both who we are and, later, our sense of vocation to enter practice – is to be abandoned, or at least seriously questioned, in the light of “research-based” pedagogies which we must adopt if we are to be serious about this work.

It is certain that some of our stories about the world must be interrogated and ultimately discarded. The great gain of No Child Left Behind (for all its tragic losses) was its articulation of the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” which opened ground for serious exploration of bias, stereotype threat, and the rest of the complex of self-fulfilling prophecies (or heuristics, if you agree with them) that maintain the yawning achievement gap. My “hopes, needs, and possibilities, real and imagined” may involve the short-circuiting of another’s, based on assumptions baked into my stories about the capacities and intentions of student race and ethnicity. gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation. I completely accept the presence of bias in our educational culture, and support our best efforts to counteract its miseducative legacy.

But still, there must be a place for the wisdom of my students’ stories about teaching: a place front and center in my curriculum, not sneaked in around the edges as reflective essays about my “favorite teacher” or my “favorite class” that future teachers write and then go through the pockets of for insight into how to go and do likewise. It is so much deeper than that – or must be, if we are to take seriously the implications of understanding this work as vocation, not job (or even profession).

I am coming to see that perhaps the greatest value of the work I do with future teachers, nurses, and social workers with stories and poems about giving care is that reading someone else’s stories calls out our own. Inevitably, reading a poem like “Call Room” in a group brings into that group the stories that each member also carries from her days of training; “September, The First Day of School” invites bright recollections of all our first days of school (for all of us have been one end of that hand-holding at the classroom door, and many of us have been on the other). By giving place to an absent teacher or nurse’s story, suddenly we have a unique place to reflect upon our own  – even if it contradicts what we are “supposed to think or do” in our practice. Even if it doesn’t make sense logically, but does, deeply, to us.

And maybe Sapolsky’s rollicking and overflowing stories have called out my truth here, helping me really understand that in my deepest self I feel that our stories must be a part of how we engage with our teaching world, why that’s the engine that drives my own research. And for that I’m grateful.

Image from the National Zoo site.

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