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December 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 4

Voices: The Teacher / The Dalai Lama on Kids Today

As a high school English teacher, I witness incivility almost daily. In classrooms, hallways, and playing fields; caustic remarks, unruliness, even acts of violence run rampant. Such behavior seems to be the norm rather than an aberration in schools today.
Until recently, I knew of only one way of dealing with such behavior. I had become a Captain Bligh, slapping kids with detentions, flogging them with harsh words, or, sometimes, having the miscreant summoned to a higher court the principal's office. There they would be keel hauled in other words, suspended. Never did I question why a kid had mutinied. In fact, by taking these actions, I could exorcize my own anger and restore my confidence. Students could see I was not one to be messed with.
Over the past year, however, I've tempered my approach. Why the change? You might say it was on the advice of a consultant: His Holiness, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. Yes, Tibet's exiled Buddhist leader. Let me explain.

Passage to India

Thanks to what the Buddhists call good Karma, a friend of mine invited me to join him in a one week business trip to India in the spring of 1995. I was reluctant to take the whirlwind trip; I'd have to miss a week of school. But my friend went on to explain that he would be traveling to the Himalayan Mountain village of Dharmsala. The purpose of his trip was to interest the Dalai Lama in a Tibetan project he was undertaking. We would get to meet the man who is revered by his supporters as a living Buddha; who in 1989 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. I couldn't resist.
About a month before our departure, my friend was notified that he would indeed be granted an audience with the Dalai Lama, who frequently meets with foreign delegations. But what would I, an English teacher, ask this man?
From my readings, I knew some things about His Holiness. I knew that Tenzin Gyatso was born in 1935 to a peasant family in Takster, a farming village in eastern Tibet. I knew that at the age of 2, he was recognized as the new incarnation of Tibet's patron god. And I knew that by the time he was an adolescent, the Dalai Lama was already burdened with crucial political decisions. In 1950, Chinese troops invaded Tibet. For nine years, the young Buddhist leader struggled diplomatically to save his country, before fleeing to northern India where he established a government in exile in Dharmsala.

One Answer

Before my trip to Dharmsala, a senseless tragedy made it clear what I would ask this man who had been honored for his compassion and advocacy of nonviolence. It happened on a Saturday night. Some students from my school were partying and a fight erupted. One teenager was fatally stabbed with a kitchen knife. A second, a former literature student of mine, was accused of the murder. He had been a fine student and a star football and basketball player, even while growing up hard in a violent household.
Three weeks later, I left Ocean City, New Jersey, for the foothills of the Himalayas. On the morning of March 15, I found myself sitting in the receiving room of the Dalai Lama's private residence. At precisely 8:30, he entered the room. We stood. He nodded, then walked to a picture window and for several moments gazed out into his garden. He then turned and said, "Please realize, I have no answers." After a pause, he burst into laughter. My jitters promptly disappeared. His Holiness was friendly, warm, congenial, and unpretentious.
Later, after my friend had completed his discussion, I posed my question: How can I help prevent violence among young people today? The exiled religious leader acknowledged that many kids grow up in unhappy homes and are raised without affection. But he also had this to say:In Tibet, we have a saying: Many illnesses can be cured by the one medicine of love and compassion. These qualities are the source of human happiness and our need for them lies at the very core of our being. As a teacher, you should care about the human heart, not just about education. True compassion is not just an emotional response, but a firm commitment founded on reason. It is an attitude toward others that does not change, even if they behave negatively.
Such values, he added, cannot be taught through mere words:Your students must see by your behavior that you are genuinely committed and concerned about their well being and future. If they do, your students will trust and respect you, and the values your behavior reflects will leave an indelible impression on their minds. The compassionate mind is like an elixir; it is capable of transforming bad situations into beneficial ones.
During the train ride back to New Delhi, I lay in my bunk thinking about these remarks. Today, I realize that all kids need guidance, love, and someone they can emulate. Instead of lashing out with harsh words or making some mutineer walk the plank, I try to be patient. I try my utmost to understand why the student is acting negatively.
When I tell colleagues of my new approach, many think I've abandoned ship. They argue that in a world dominated by anger, compassion doesn't command respect. But I keep in mind what His Holiness told me: "Compassion is by nature gentle, but also very powerful."

Henry Bender has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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