When I began teaching other people how to teach, I was often asked a question that I suppose all teaching-methods teachers get.
“What’s the best way to get along with the students?”
For quite a while I answered that question this way:
“Just be yourself.”
You know something? That may be the worst advice I ever gave. In fact, it may be the worse advice anyone ever gave.
Oh it’s great advice if you happen to be the right kind of person. But what if you are like some people who gravitate into teaching? What if you’re the never satisfied with anything type? Or the hate life and take it out on the kids type? Or the heap on homework because it’s good for them type?
Hey! You’re gonna spend a lot of time dodging spit wads every time you turn your back, bubba.
And serves you right!
And if you think “just be yourself” is bad advice for the classroom, try it as advice for people headed overseas to spend three or four years as “unofficial ambassadors.”
You know what? The guy who said, “When in Rome do as the Romans do,” knew what he was talking about.
If you don’t, you’re gonna wish you had.
Take my first boss in the embassy over in Pakistan.
How Major Grace ever got stationed in a place where it took a certain amount of flexibility and understanding to get along with the locals I’ll never know. They screened us enlisted types quite carefully, and I’m sure they must have screened the officers too, but somehow or other he slipped through the cracks.
Mind you, Major Grace was a nice enough guy. A little dumb for an officer who was a command pilot, but by and large quite nice despite his one tiny little personality flaw.
If you weren’t American he assumed you were as thick as snot.
Now I love my country, but I’m willing to believe that there are a few rare people living in other nations who are able to find their backsides if you give them half an hour and let them use both hands. But not good old Chuck Grace. He would do things and say things in front of foreigners that made every American in the room shudder. And when he wasn’t trying to whip up a holy war against the United States with his verbal gymnastics, he did it with actions, spelling out, “I think you folks are idiots!” in body language.
That takes talent. Not everyone can do it.
I’ll never forget the time we were in the customs office at Mauripur Air Base, speaking with the chief customs officer, who could have made untold amounts of trouble for us since a major part of Major Grace’s job — and mine! — was to smuggle in aerial photography film for the U-2 aircraft we were flying over Russia from Pakistan.
Hasan Ahmed Khan, chief of customs, smiled at us in his spacious office and asked us to be seated while a servant brewed tea.
“What!” Major Grace said, looking ready to puke his guts out on a beautiful Persian carpet, “Drink that tea? With milk from some dirty camel in it?”
I don’t think I have to explain why that wasn’t exactly the right thing to say to a proud and dignified Arab who was a full-blooded descendant of folks who poured through the Khyber Pass centuries earlier and conquered as much of India as they cared to bother with.
And to make matters worse, the good major looked at me and said, “Garrett, I think you better handle this.” Translation: “This guy is too low level for me to deal with.”
As the major showed us his back, I sat down, smiled the best smile I could and shrugged my shoulders. In the body language of the region it said, “What can I do? The fool is my superior.”
And then, before we began chatting about whether or not it was really necessary for customs to take a close look at what was coming in on a passenger aircraft due in from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in an hour, Ahmed Khan and I went into a discussion of a one pound tin of Lipton Black Tea from which his servant was carefully spooning the finest Ceylonese tea that money could buy.
By the time we finished four cups of absolutely delicious tea — camel’s milk and all — Ahmed and I were in perfect agreement that it was a waste of time to trouble with cargo on an aircraft designed to carry people. Not only that, I had a tin of that Lipton Black to take home to Lolly, quite a prize.
Thank God I was able to intercept Major Grace on his way back to the customs office a few minutes later. He was on his way there with an ersatz Zippo lighter.
“This’ll close his thievin eyes,” the major told me.
“Why don’t you let me take it to him, sir?” I suggested. “I’m kind’ve on his good side right now.”
“Don’t tell me you drank some of that camel’s milk tea?”
“Garrett, you’re crazy. God knows what you’re gonna get.”
I didn’t tell him that milk from any animal is absolutely sterile. He would never have believed it anyway.
Urine, by the way, is sterile too. So if you get caught out in the woods with nothing else to wash off a nasty cut ...
Don’t put it in your tea though. Dilutes it too much.
As for that ersatz Zippo the Major wanted to bribe a wealthy Arab with?
Made in Japan. Cost about 20 cents. The Japanese were still having a hard time after the war, and they were taking the cold drink and beer cans emptied by thousands of American GIs still stationed over there and stamping out things to sell.
I opened it later and looked at the inside. Said Dr. Pepper.
And the dang thing leaked lighter fluid while it was in my pocket, thereby ruined my sex life for two days!
Oh, well. We all make sacrifices for our country.