Michael's Monthly Column "Throwing My Loop" - No. 34
The Student and the Teacher…

Which one are we? Are we students or are we teachers? When I was young, the distinction was so clear. Teachers were people who were very tall and very smart. Miss Elrod, Miss Watts and Mr. Barfield and all the others wore nice clothes and knew most everything. Complex subjects like English, math, and life (hopelessly confusing to me as a child) seemed simple matters to those wise and all knowing beings who poured out knowledge like clear water from a spring.

My daddy and uncles, who were such rough tough men, would do the most surprising thing on the rare occasions when a teacher came to visit our farm…they would take their hats off. I never saw them do that for anyone else. And in casual conversations, when someone mentioned the name of one of their former teachers, the men would actually lower their voices and speak in hushed tones. Such respect and awe from men who were made from saddle leather and steel (and who rarely offered a compliment to anyone) convinced me at an early age that the ones called ‘teachers’ must be most special indeed…and I wanted to be like them.

So, after a few false starts, I did all the things the world says we must do to become a teacher… went to school, and sat in hard seats. Listened to endless lectures, read books, wrote papers, and took tests. At last the ordeal was over, and the powers that be pronounced a new teacher had come into the world. And for a time, I thought I was tall, and very smart. Wore nice clothes and knew most everything…and things like English, math and life seemed simple matters to me. Then, I met Ogba.

I walked out of the Engineering Building on a hot July afternoon. In a hurry naturally, because after all, there were so many important things to be done. Professors who taught for Texas A&M and the Department of Defense were pretty important people and…there stood Ogba.

Ogba was one of my students, and a good one, but even though he was a very bright and nice looking young man, Ogba possessed one characteristic that irritated me to no end. He grinned all the time.

That grin drove me crazy. On several occasions, I almost mentioned it to him, but the time was never quite right. I knew however, that the day would come when I would sit him down and explain this behavior was just not proper. After all, we were a major university contracting with the Department of Defense to train engineers to manage vast complexes and handle affairs of state. And…how would it look to have one of our highly trained, skilled people in charge of thousands walking around with…
a stupid grin on their face? Not hardly. Not one of my students. No sir.

“How are you, Dr. Johnson?” beamed Ogba, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. I just stared at him.
“Ogba…” I began slowly. Then I had a thought. “No need to hurt his feelings, let’s do this gently.” “Ogba,” I repeated, “where are you from?”
“Ethiopia, sir,” he said, teeth shining like stars.
“Ethiopia?” I said stunned. “How on earth did you end up in Texas?”
“I walked a great part of the way,” he said.
“You walked here from Ethiopia?” I asked, with my mouth open.
“Yes, I did sir, and if you like, I will tell you my story.”

And standing there in that hot July sun, with sweat running down me into all kinds of uncomfortable places, Ogba spun me a true tale. A tale of tragedy and heartbreak, and a tale of strength and victory.
And since that day, I’ve never been quite the same.

“Our King was a kind and benevolent man,” Ogba began, looking off to the west, as if trying to see his home on the other side of the world.
“We lived in the eastern part of Africa, and we knew nothing of hunger or war, or poverty. Our country raised cattle and corn and coffee, and we prided ourselves on feeding half a continent. Our King was an educated man and sent many of our people to your great country to learn. My mother and father were two of those. They became teachers, a high honor in our country, and my father taught mathematics, and my mother taught the children about your constitution and about Jesus, and our days were full of hope. Then the Marxists came.”

And for the first time since I had known Ogba, I noticed the smile had left his face.

“They slaughtered our people,” he said softly. “They killed our beloved King, they murdered my mother and father… because they were teachers.”
And we stood in the sun for a time, as Ogba stared at the ground.
Then he continued…

“My younger brother and I were captured, and taken to a camp in the middle of a terrible land. I was forced to teach the Marxist doctrine to young children and after three weeks, could no longer stand to live that life any more. At dawn, I kissed my brother good-bye, said a prayer and walked away from the camp. I walked for three weeks across the Sudanese desert. I ate lizards and scorpions and lost forty pounds.”

“But then…” he said, with just a trace of a smile returning, “I made my way to Morocco, stowed away on a cattle steamer and came to America. I got a job in a convenience store and eventually received my engineering degree, and now I’m in graduate school. I met a woman two years ago and we fell in love and married. Just last month, my wife gave birth to our first child, a baby girl. Our baby is fat and healthy, and she is happy, and so are we. So, my wonderful professor, that is my story, and…that is why I grin all the time. I’m so grateful to be here with all of you.”

I waited until I trusted my voice to speak and said, “We are grateful to have you here too, Ogba.”
“Thank you for saying that, sir,” he smiled, and then he asked,
“I just have one question for you sir, if I might?”
“Certainly,” I replied.
“I was just wondering,” said Ogba, with a look of puzzlement on his face,
“why aren’t all of you grinning all the time?”

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