Though we are no longer in touch very often and our close teacher-student relationship is just a memory, writing about my advisor makes me feel thankful. He was the one that got me a teaching job at the university which I hold to this day. He held out the hand that helped me mount the first rung of the academic ladder to success. That he did this for me when I was only doing graduate work for my Masters showed the faith he had in me. With only a BA degree behind me, people do not set foot near the bottom of the faculty hierarchical ladder. They do not get university teaching jobs. But I wasn’t even a regular people. I was over 50, living in Israel, a country with virulent ageism. Yet, he still offered me an adjunct lectureship in the Overseas Program. The marvel happened like this.
In his office, we were discussing my diary that would be coming out with Ivan Dee Publishers in Chicago, Storm of Terror: a Hebron Mother’s Diary. He was pleased about that. So I shared my outline for my next book. It was going to be similar to the mystic Gurdjieff’s Meetings with Remarkable Men, but the meetings I would write about would be with remarkable women. Women I knew, who against the greatest odds, were breaking out of their binds to build a spiritual life. I told him the title, “Women in Search of God.”
“You got it!” he exclaimed. “A great idea for a course.”
“I’m talking about a book.”
“And I’m talking about you teaching a course. But there have to be men in it too. Men and Women in Search of God. You’ll have to adapt it for international students coming to study in Israel. Create a syllabus and show it to me.”
The course which I designed was called The Search for Spirituality. The contemporary women I had meant to write about dropped out of this project. I selected a few spiritual heroes and heroines in the Old Testament and New Testament. This adaptation made the course relevant to Israel where both Judaism and Christianity were born. My advisor insisted that be a 4 credit course. He had so much faith in me. He didn’t realize that this was too much to expect from someone who after a 30 year break from being in college was now back in academia doing a Master’s degree.
Besides, I was an introvert and painfully self-conscious after being regarded for years as an ignorant greenhorn who obviously doesn’t know anything because she couldn’t speak Hebrew properly. I had turned down teaching English as a Foreign Language in Israeli public schools for this reason. And for years I had been doing freelance writing in the solitude of my bedroom study and everything else I did spiritually had been in my closet.
But four credits it was. And it was a required course which met four hours a week. I was so nervous that before I could even step into the classroom, I had to do long meditations and Yoga poses to calm me. But even then I had had panic attacks while teaching. Suddenly, my mind would fog out and I would only see white, not a thought, not a clue what I was doing before this group of students.
One day a student called out, “Ms. Leavitt, your course is called In Search of Spirituality. How come we aren’t we learning how to have spiritual experiences?” He claimed that he would not read texts abut Abraham and Sara and Jesus and Martha and Mary anymore. He got the others refusing too. “What about us? Our relationship to God isn’t as important as these 3,000 year old dead people?”
I didn’t want to report him to the disciplinary board. Not to spare him. But to spare me. I didn’t want to appeal to a higher authority. I went home and prayed. My way of praying for an answer is to try to write truthfully from the bottom of my heart. Though getting down to the truth is hard in dark moments of all those tears, I was able to compose a letter to the students. I read it to them our next meeting.
You’re right. I never taught in college before. But I’ve been searching for spirituality since I was your age and writing about it. So the head of the program gave me this job and here I am. And here you are. We were thrown together by chance. Was it chance though? Or is there some kind of guidance working even in this classroom so we can learn through struggle? You’re struggling with this course, because it doesn’t meet your expectations. And I am struggling to teach it. And everybody we are reading about in the Old and New Testaments struggled and faced trials and troubles. Just like us.
That soothed the atmosphere in my classroom. Though I still had a great deal to do to make the course more focused, I kept on teaching for the next 20 years.