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Digging a Hole: Clinical Teaching and the Journey of Learning


service learningStuart Grauer, a teacher, is the founding Head of School at The Grauer School. He is also President of The Grauer Foundation for Education and Founder of The Coalition for Small Preparatory Schools. Stuart is former Principal of the International School of Basel, Switzerland and, in 1991, founded The Grauer School in order to establish humanitarian secondary education in Southern California. He has consulted with and evaluated many schools worldwide and been awarded with a Fulbright Administrator Exchange. Stuart is one of the nation's top authorities on small schools education. His narratives have appeared in The New York TimesInternational Education Review, and frequently in the local press in his home town of Encinitas, California, where he has been named “Peacemaker of the Year.” 

As educators and students, what gets us ready to commit to an endeavor, to a class or study, to a purpose, rather than grazing half-heartedly through another class?  What makes us tap in to something larger?  What causes us to cast off our timid shadows and engage fully in life and the largest purposes we can find for it? 

Day I:  Anticipatory Set
Cherrywood conference table. Fake mahogany desk. Oak and cherry bookshelves stuffed with lesson plan files, teacher planbooks and methodology books, purchased to look business-like...the things in my classroom are purchased to look business-like, having no particular origin, and selected for their invisible Southern California essence. There are even a few pieces laden with meaning like the beautiful, Hawaiian o’o stick and a cherrywood curios cabinet, both excellent decorations, and I admit I’m attached to them. But in the corner is a rough, hand-hewn wooden axe shaft with a pig iron pickaxe head that does not match anything at all, and if pickaxes could talk, this one would offer up some things true about leadership in education.

It was already ten years ago and we’ve travelled the world building schools and homes and gardens since then.  We’ve had some colorful journeys, journeys that might lend themselves to teaching stories more easily than the one I am about to relate.  But who can say which things will become enduring and rich memories of friendship and which remain mere colorful decorations on the wall?  And I have yet to experience any student lesson more complete than that one journey to Central Mexico where our students’ full labors amounted to little more than digging a hole.

We—ten students and three teachers from The Grauer School of Encinitas (a suburban Southern Cal surf town)—signed on to a housebuilding trip to rural, central Mexico.  Months of study in Spanish language and culture in preparation struck me as superficial. We had looked at the brochures and had a series of student and parent meetings, we were essentially putting ourselves at the mercy of Habitat for Humanity to pave the way for a safe trip, having at best a vague idea what it was really like down there. The consideration of what matters in the lives of Mexican campesinos was not in our realm of cognition.  To tell more truth, we hadn’t talked to any of these students on a personal or individual level about our trip all that much and, from most of them, I was hardly getting a sense of fire in the belly or burning humanitarian conviction. It’s not their fault; in fact, it is probably our fault, for making service seem like a steppingstone to college rather than a genuine act of compassion.  The expedition began to unfold in accordance with best practice lesson planning.

 “Clinical teaching” breaks each lesson down into several parts to ensure a complete learning experience; so each lesson is a model journey that we move through. 

The typical lesson plan breaks the lesson, or journey, down into stages, starting with development of a sense of anticipation.  Wise educators develop an “anticipatory set” for students in order to ensure their readiness for any lesson at hand.  For our part, we had students develop proposals defending their rationale for attending this trip, but we got the sense they “knew the drill”—their proposals were academic and devoid of real anticipation.   

Why are we striving so? What makes tasks matter? What is noble about this work?  If you are a teacher and find these questions coming up often, you are in the right profession. If you do not encounter such questions, perhaps this is a good time to reconsider that real estate license!


Teachers and students alike can easily confuse anything presented in school with just another required part of the curriculum. The assumption that causes this confusion is simply:  “You have no choice if you want to pass, so just sit down and down and do the work.” Or, “You have no choice if you want your pick of colleges.” Nobody says these sentence, they are just understood.

“Why is this important?” we might ask our class in an effort to support a more balanced purpose.

“Because it’s required!” is the presumption on the days when bureaucracy takes over.  “Because we are told to do it by the right people.” 

Presented this way, the lesson stimulates the anticipation of the most compliant in the room, rather than the most genuinely curious. 

 “Why is this important?” we will ask on this better day. The real teacher will be thinking differently this time. It is important:

“Because I know you will find it beautiful.” “Because it creates change for the better.” “Because it is so funny you will never forget it!” “It will put meat on the table, someday.” 

And for those special ones: “It is a deep and universal truth.” “It brings about transformation.” At some point, we believe that probably all the best lessons really are journeys; we hope our students can somehow experience new worlds and that a great lesson is like an expedition. And at this point, we have anticipated extremely well.

But where to start?  How to start?

service learningThe sombreros, burros and craggy mountain passes, and turning hot southern sun we were envisioning from north of the border vaporized as we got into a real airplane, the first of three. There was no anticipating the storm on our plane’s decent into the Leon City airport on that dark night. Passing through a siege of lightening bursts all around, it was like finding a forbidden hole in the cosmos—we were all moving into another realm. I welcomed this chaos, as it created a sense of common background experience to connect our group, so long as we survived.

Now intensifying, the lightning and instant thunder cracked open the sky and we knew then, for certain, as the wings tremored, the plane would be engulfed.  For any future life beyond that, we could have only gratitude and no further entitlements.  Out of character, Cameron (grade 9) pulled out our brochure from Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, which provided wider perspective: “Building a solid foundation and a solid house is about the same as building a good life.  You are safe from the elements.” We are safe and stunned. The plane touched down. No one spoke.

It got worse as our the cab snaked and wound down rainy streets, into the blackness of the gorge called Ciudad Guanajuato, down through its underground, cloistered streets—this cab could not possibly have had brakes. In the back row of this movie huddled Charlie, 11th grade, round eyes wide and contemplative; Cameron, eating snacks compulsively; Allison F., 11th, arms crossed tightly in terror and eternal judgment as we fell down an abyss and, at last, the cab driver cried out in crazed joy, “There’s a street in Guanajuato called ‘Callejon de Veces,’ and it is so narrow you have to kiss to pass by.”

These essential experiences served to prepare us for entry into the new environment far from California’s domain, for the sacred or profane. There can be no significant journey, or none I’ve seen, without a front-end barrier to break through, whether the barrier is wasps, borders with machine guns, one-wheel landings, lost passports, defiant students, or other borders which allow only those with resolution and courage, or who will gain courage, to pass through, to have readiness, to be game. We arrived at the hotel quieter, more observant.  Dean translated “Rules of the Case Kloster Hotel: “…4. No escupar las paredes, ni pisos”  (Dean, grade 11:  “Don’t spit on the walls or floors”), and all other rules were off. We peaked out into the plaza. Quanajuato is a winding-street, European-style town with thick, carved doorways and plazas of cobblestone or grass, international students drinking coffee under umbrellas, and always a disco a block away; and our student anticipation was as thick as the disco crowd. 

But now it was very dark, and late, and we thought everyone was exhausted. The two chaperones and I were relieved to show everyone to their rooms, threaten them with the early start the next day, and go off to sleep. 

The students snuck out.

“I couldn’t believe so many people were dancing and having such a crazy time and we were out of the United States,” said Connor, 12th grade at the bust the next morning. (Connor would have another crazy time in college the next year, drop out and work for 2 years, then finally return to college and get on the straight path.)

The master lesson does not need to teach a useful skill. It does not need to be “relevant.!,” any more than kissing a pretty girl or listening to ocean waves do.  Who cares if beauty is relevant or irrelevant!  It is beauty. And it starts merely with a state of receptivity we call:  anticipatory. A lesson clearly and well anticipated has a chance of becoming a masterpiece.

We muttled around coffee and cocoa as though last night were a past life, and we tried to find some new presence. Now it was time to raise the big, process questions:

How will Encinitas, California behaviors cut it around here? What do you care about down here? What matters?
Are we here to meet our needs or theirs?
It was time to move the lesson along.
Will Dean get kissed in narrow streets?

Day 2: Beginning the Instruction
service learningWe have come a long way and there are important instructions. Our journey next entails getting our students the information they will need to on task, on mission.  This is the information download, the story. It is the most teacher-centered or book-centered (or video-centered) part of the lesson. Students need background content to apply later, just as the sculpture needs clay to shape.

Carissa, the other chaperone, details that Valle is a city of seven tall church spires, surrounded by seven volcanoes that could engulf us at any minute. We will have a guided tour. Sunday nights, the town singles gather in the large green town square before the baroque-style cathedral, and she will take us there. The girls (singlas) step obediently around the entire square, counter clockwise, while caballeros, all appearing to be twenty-something, walk clockwise in a courtly fashion, like a folk dance. (Or is it that folk dances are like this?) The paisanos love the square like they love Benito Juarez. Every town, if it is a good town, must somehow love something in this way. 

It was time to travel to our worksite in San Vincente de Garma. We passed great fields of overhead corn and sorghum, deep in the country, lush and over-growing the sprawling government irrigation infra-structure, barely visible--pure observers. A burro-drawn cart passed by, chickens hustled out of a clearing where the road opened up to the farming village, small brick houses lining narrow streets, no cars running. The bus pulled up in front of a walled compound, a classic Central American finca, still occupied by the village founders, the Garza’s. We stepped out of the bus.  It was hot, and white in the sun.  From there, we passed slowly through tiny dirt alleyways, at last reaching a small, oval compound of five tiny homes in various stages shaded under eucalyptus trees and some oaks.

The settlement, an extended family, was stocked with chickens everywhere, a few goats, a couple of cows and a bull, a family of white turkeys, two of brown; two stables, some vegetables growing on vines…all this rising up out of packed dirt, and a pack of dark-brown haired, coffee skinned kids roaming about. The youngest of them, with Flintstones tee and sleepy eyes, clasps (like a teddy bear) a large box of “SnackWells,” Nabisco’s sodium-intensive paean to the global corn monocrop. In the picture we took, a burro stands chewing from a pile of corn shuckings next to a yoke with cart that also worked well as a play slide for the kids. As always, the bass line from a nearby radio pulsed through, with faint lyrics: disco punk mariachi.

The students fumbled and huddled before passing fully through the entryway to the compound. Inside a dark shack, an aproned, expressionless woman cooked the masa over a wood fire. Outside of the worn-out shacks were mainly piles of volcanic rock.  The walls consisted of piles of concrete slabs, curtains for doors and windows, corrugated fiberglass thrown overhead as roofs, secured down by tires and (on one) an old bicycle so they would not blow away. Across the enclosure a new, brick house was in progress. “This is our house,” said a bow legged man in Wranglers and a straw cowboy hat, pointing up the narrow compound and piles of brick. The foreman. Our teacher.

Funds donated by our student travellers and the school enabled the purchase of all that brick. Had we donated just a bit of it, we would not be here, but we had purchased all of it, which was the price of being allowed to help. Our students wandered in with caution, largely ignored by the laborers but for their brand new, rawhide work gloves that suddenly seemed like they were day-glo. As inconspicuously as possible, the students began to find stray jobs. 

Say what you will, most students are accustomed to being told exactly what do to, and to do nothing until such point, especially with teachers. Add to this that our group was too culture shocked to say much, and none of the on-site workers or locals said much either. Our students drifted in clusters amongst the native work crew. A couple mixed concrete with shovels right on the dirt, glopping it into the wheelbarrow. One helped the mason. One or two carried bricks to the house.  Some were told to start digging a hole in the ground, three meters by three meters by three meters. 

service learningThe students began to move, slowly, insecurely, remotely, as invisibly as possible, leaving consciousness out of it, entering the new world and the new lesson, passively at first.

Work proceeded with little talk.  Sometimes, one student or another could find a niche in brick laying, trenching, or the good wheelbarrow work, but mainly what our volunteers were best qualified for was digging the hole. This freed up the locals to make the intelligent decisions and provide for any task requiring actual skill.

These country laborers and family members have skills that could easily fetch five dollars a day on the market, when work is available. Grauer School skills, from the winningest soccer player’s kick, to the highest student SAT score, to the highest faculty graduate degrees, are not worth molé around here. If intelligence is sensitivity to the environment, we were the least intelligent in the village.  Mercifully, the campesinos paid us little mind.

Our morning pace remained slow as the sun got higher.  Gabe, 11th, was helping the mason, and Allison W. stood by or sat on the bench looking fragile, but everyone else was digging in shifts. Spanish teacher and trip translator Chris S., the fittest among us, was pick axing in the new pit like it was a race. Charley  (10th) was at the wheelbarrow, removing dirt from the hole, and Cameron, digging. Noelle (who loved sculpting and all visual arts) was waiting for the chance to mix cement.

When it comes to service, the problem of how to help is not always easy—outside of a few specialty areas that we each have, helping can be frustrating or even, as we would soon learn in Guanajuato, completely humiliating. So it was good to be digging. "What are we digging?” Allison asked, but no one cared and the shovels kept slamming. The students dug in with some muscle, and some conviction began to develop as we made way. 

Lunchtime arrived and we gathered around a wooden table. The bright, matt orange of the bricks laying in a pile next to our lunch table did not remind us of the brochures we’d reviewed together. Somehow all we had discussed in California had no relation to any of this. The need for our journey was so far a presumption created by glossy brochures of Habitat for Humanity, but a student needs to develop his own case for being a humanitarian, independently, at some point: to construct his own meaning and purpose. Carissa explained that if these villagers could get a house, with rooms, and drainage, and they didn’t need to walk a quarter mile to the nearest water closet, maybe they wouldn’t have to deal with squalor every day, and they could just tend to the fields and market; they would not have to spend their whole lives looking up at a good, self-sufficient life perpetually just slightly out of reach.  They could get a leg up above survival and have more time for luxuries like education, packaged food, and even pottery and arts.

San Vincente de Garma is not that bad off for a place that needs houses. If you join Habitat for Humanity and go to Africa, say, the outskirts of Durban, you are liable to work with families still festering from apartheid days, families which have been forcibly uprooted and relocated. Habitat builds houses for families faced with daily dragging out the family’s sewage bucket, digging a hole, dumping it in and burying it. For many, even a mud hut that doesn’t collapse every time it’s raining would be an upgrade, and a cinder block hut would be Freedom. For some, the poverty line is a dollar and a quarter a day and any formal education at all is a luxury. 
“My friend’s family was homeless—they spent the night in their car after they lost their lease,” says Connor.  Like every global problem, relative poverty exists a country mile from practically wherever you live in America. At fancy Southern California prep schools in high-end zip codes, you can find it. In our town, long-time Encinitas local Maggie Houlihan served on the Mayor’s task force on the housing and commented: “Many North County people live one paycheck away from homelessness.” We have learned lessons in homelessness, although we have not learned clearly what we are doing way down here. Locals can save a lot on plane fare and still fight homelessness.  Why did we really come to San Vincente de Garma to serve?

Day 3: Teacher Presents Guided Practice: We Start Digging But Need Leadership
In the good lessons, students create meaning and this is the test of their education, character and, even, courage. They can create it orally, graphically, physically, so long as it is genuine—the real teacher honors all learning styles. On expedition, a student’s worth and achievement is of course not judged by a teacher grade, but by how useful or helpful the student appears to be in a situation. More difficult still: Student achievement is often not clearly knowable, the kind of situation that could leave some students feeling confused and insecure. Ironically, in the very best of lessons and journeys, our students have no benchmark to determine the worthiness of an entire venture—The question, “Is this work even significant?” is one they must answer for themselves, even though they are forever asking their teachers to answer it for them.

The ideas of initiative, entrepreneurship, attacking open-ended problems, forming purposes beyond those the size of an algebra problem, etc., are all regular topics of conversation among educators. Still, we have no one answer for “What motivates students?” except our knowledge that some are more internally driven (intrinsically motivated) and other more externally driven (extrinsically motivated). 

Why are we striving so? What makes tasks matter? What is noble about this work?  If you are a teacher and find these questions coming up often, you are in the right profession. If you do not encounter such questions, perhaps this is a good time to reconsider that real estate license!

“They say papaya in the morning calms the stomach,” someone says, and everyone believes it who needs to.  

Down in Mexico, the open markets are set precisely so that the most people must pass by it on their way to work each day, and here a large smoothie with fresh cut papaya is fifty cents. Early morning in the countryside is a good time. The goats play in the streets, little local children on their way to school. Donkeys carry their cartloads of fresh greens. Tractors are quietly waiting and ready at the edges of town.  It is not too hot.

After two days, our students were digging peacefully because maybe if the campesinos could live above subsistence, their kids could get some education, enough to understand over-population, and enough to be able to plan beyond the next crop.

service learningThey were digging to deepen their college applications, or because their parents sent them down here so they could be good parents. And they were digging because there were others digging and going along. On occasion, a few dug to uncover the poverty or pain of their own, entitled, suburban existence, a cosmic insurance policy. Whatever their reasons for their digging, it never appeared that day, at least to me. We were like the singlas and cabelleros stepping around the town square on Sunday nights, marching but not yet connected. The digging proceeded slowly.

In any situation where humans work closely for a while, they will naturally divide into roles, and so digging dirt eventually became a classifier of identity and, in a crude way, intelligence.  Some stayed close around the pit and just keep swapping the pick-axes and the wheelbarrows. Others, trending towards independence, began making games of it, exploring the permutations possible given these crude elements for work and achievement. 

Inside the old, family hut that would become a stable when the new house was done, the matron stood over a wood stove, an open fire in the back of the hut (a good way to get lung cancer), and the molé vat. A pile of corn lay on the dirt floor by her feet.  “Puede la estudiante usted trabajar?” someone muttered in tortured Spanish. “Can a student help you [make lunch]?”


She was honest and she knew our help would be of no help, that we couldn’t even get the head off a chicken. If you wanted to help, you could dig. Allison, hovered around the hut, turned back and reflected with a bored look for a moment over the hole, then turned back and watched the two women remove the roasting the chilis from where they worked over the open fire. The women then added the chilis into the molé vat, shook off the soaked corn husks and began wrapping the chicken and masa. Tomorrow Allison would be able to help in the kitchen. We dug or watched digging. 

The hole grew to one meter deep, forming a nice striation, then it happened: we hit rock. Charlie and Cameron attacked the new layer, and then another rotation of diggers, then another—it looked like the end of the line. At last the locals moved in and chipped a large piece of it off:  dark gray, pocked material. Igneous. A couple concerned students were taken aback: This earth was right out of a volcano, one of the volcanoes we could see from town. The next layer may not be so easy.

The campesino foreman and the mason dug a pit around some of the rocks and the students could see their outlines emerging. Eventually, his pickaxe could leverage them out. Once the rock was almost gone, the men handed back the pick axes and shovels. The day was growing old, though, and the students were about knocking off by then. It was a good day for a day three, and the students were stable in their roles.

Sweaty and ever seeking for ways of disturbing systems, I mused, “Is there anything college preparatory about this?” 

 “Not really,” Conner answered back, “you have to use up a lot of energy, not just sit in class and do what the teacher says.” University of San Diego, University of California, Chapman and Purdue would receive some of these students in a year. 

“Conner you’re a good guy, but that’s weak,” I replied, though I was about to be sorry I had. 

Like a game ending, the thought of digging this hole all week suddenly resurfaced. “What are we digging?” “Yea, why are we digging,” chimed in Allison W., and I knew the game was over as the others’ attentions piqued.  I was stumped.

“A sump.  It’s a sump,” I explained to downturned faces. Pause. “A sump hole.” And I gave it up at last: “We’re digging a hole for their toilet to run to. A sewer.” 

“We’re digging a s--t hole,” Cameron lobbed in, wry.

“We came all the way down here to dig a …?”  Connor paused.

This was beyond humbling: “Okay. Great. I’ll tell you what,” I said. No quieting the issue any more. “You guys donated around $3000 mainly for bricks, and you traveled 1500 miles by shuttle, airplane, bus, taxi, another bus, another shuttle and then a mile on foot to give pretty much all the help you are qualified to give, to do one of mankind’s most basic, oldest tasks:  digging a shithole.

“Now you get to figure out what to tell your parents back home? You gonna write that on your college essays?” Connor’s face froze in the “uncool” position and Cameron cracked up.

“But for our next trip, I have it all lined up for us to save the forests of the world.” 

In legend and life, a hole is usually bad news. The King James Bible is full of holes: “And they shall go into the holes of the rocks for fear of the Lord, and …he ariseth to shake terribly the earth.
(Isa 2:19)”

“…and he that earneth wages, earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes (Hag 1:6)”

“You’ll never get rich, just diggin’ a ditch (US Army!)”

It is among our misfortunes that we do not very well distinguish what is important from what sounds important. “But for now, you characters better brush up on your masonry if you want to do more than dig.” It was well after noon, and our group was fragmenting, tired, and getting ready to go. A gear was shifting. The little girls in their cotton dresses and Christian crosses around their necks smiled shyly at us as we left for the day. The walk out of the compound was slow, but more observant than ever. We even got in a game of pool with some people in a tienda we passed on the way out.

Day 4: Student Independent Practice: With the Skinny One in the Sun
The music started early. Mexican songs from various radios come on, so that music keeps changing as you walk down the street. Pretty soon the turkeys would start babbling. To the outsider, this must be the world’s stupidest sound; and the bulls would soon start their loud protesting. But, for now, it was all peace and papaya. 

The students began their tread up the now familiar camino real, past the finca, past the tiny shops with their dusty, corrugated aluminum doorways just beginning to slide open, through the worn pathways, and to the construction site. Our students are the only teens in the village, and everyone else is just men and small boys, women and small girls. We have noticed this shortage of teens in many Central and South American villages. Where are the teens?

Last night the students had slept very well with no thought of discos. The sun round as a burro’s paunch, we were on site early and worked our hands and backs, swapping the pick axes. For whatever reasons, the students started to get their own sense of direction and leadership. “Good digging,” pitched in the always encouraging senior Sara Z., whose college applications were to come due just a couple weeks upon her return. “We’re past the two meter mark.” Sara would eventually get her MBA and become an accountant. She peered down into in the rich, dark dirt mixed with igneous clumps. As we worked, we began to notice things in the homestead that must have eluded us at first look. All about the worn shacks were plants. Plants sat in a hundred different pots, and flowers of every color were blooming; yellow butterflies prospecting throughout. We started noticing the pretty dresses of the little ones playing, the innocent faces. Why does it take three days to begin seeing this?

At some point, the student’s work transcends the teacher goals and takes on a life of it’s own. If it does not do this, it is merely compliance, which is not education. It is just training at best. If the work does get to this level, it can reach a state of full engagement, perhaps even a flow state. On a bad day, all teachers hit rock, and will have to forego the achievement of this level of learning; maybe “Okay, class, time to hit the workbooks.” But on a good day, this is as good as it gets. Teachers and students collaboratively pursue tasks or learning that has somehow become real to them, tasks that matter.

The locals had started early, and had already dug a huge rock out of our hole, saving us about an hour of labor. The students, ready, donned the thick gloves, which were now blending into the worksite, and silently approached the hole. By now, in the pit, the dirt was not dark and moist. It was grayish ash, a mixture of black, gray and white volcanic rubble. A few other students picked up odd jobs around the skeletal house: making the lentil-shaped supports for framing, lifting many things, and hauling. The more Spanish you could speak, the more you could help. In another language group, the communicators move up our ladders, become our leaders; but we’d all fallen somewhere in the construction lineup, and we were all players now. 

service learningNorth of the border, at least around Southern California, we are encouraged to “think out of the box.” By the end of the fourth day, these creative-analytical, box-impaired students who know 50 ways to avoid cleaning up their room back home had their simple labors divided into five or more specialties: pick axing, shoveling, scraping, bucket removal, wheelbarrow, management, encouragement, evaluation, and more. One person axed while another sledgehammered. A rhythm emerged, too, and time decompressed. In this kind of labor, a collective intelligence forms. Charley and Cameron, normally at home on their computers, designed an intelligent bucket and pulley system to get dirt in and out of the deepening hole. (Charley would eventually graduate from Rice University and become an engineer.) 

The actual hole was just a story. It was the process of work that mattered now. The students made progress, and by lunchtime the pit looked to be the size of a royal grave, say, Henry VIII. 

The corn was picked at the edge of the village. Past the black earth layer, then further down into the igneous layer, there was abandoned hunger by noon, and we washed our hands clean and dry with the grey, ashy earth. 

For the first time, Noelle (11th), Tiffanie (10th) and Amanda (10th) were first to the table, no longer balking at the peasant food, and they made short work of a large bucket of roast corn with limes and chili powder. Kids normally grin when they eat corn, that’s a cross-cultural universal, and even Allison, the most skeptical about food, joined in. We’re all in the box.

We gathered over fresh tamales with rich, gritty almost chocolaty molé [MOH-lay], our students’ first molé, the best food in the world on that day, as the neighborhood elders gathered around the hole and sized it up: “Uno mas metro.” Still one more meter to dig. 

Digging is good work, regardless of its purpose. It is a more focused activity than students normally have when managing the almost unbelievably complex multi-tasking required of college preparation. Digging, everything is focused on something simple, hour after hour. It becomes perfect like breathing, beyond thought, a pure existence.

A person walks by and you have a choice; maybe you try to ignore them, they are ruining your rhythm. Too late, and now ignoring them is the false choice because you know you been interrupted. So you wave good day to the interloper, and just resume digging, resume the rhythm. The simple acknowledgment allows you to let the interruption go peacefully. A real digression is a rock. The task takes on a life of it’s own. Getting each rock out takes on a moral value and is a success like an A grade, but you need no grade. 

As good as digging is, humiliation is still a better experience, as it exposes a crack in our spirits, and humility is the only thing that can fill that in. We worked hard and, on that fourth day of digging, reached the rock bottom of the socio-economic scale. We are hole diggers in practice, social class, and aspiration, nothing more. By lunchtime, the children of the little village joined us and they giggled and played at the foot of the benches where we ate.  Every student ate the tamales, like something that connected everyone in good times.

We were in it. We were adapted.The campesinos got the radios going strong, the organ pumping to a deep base line. The balladeers and trumpeters laid it on thick:

On Camino de Michoacan,
I pass the time with the skinny one in the sun,

Cameron tapped out a couple steps then a couple others joined in, as Allison smiled, sort of, and we had a mini dance-work party. After lunch, the niños danced to the music, longer than we did, and we grinned and clapped and ate till everyone was stuffed.

Before the bullfight of Vinny Castillo,

Like almost anyone else from Southern California, these students would be hopeless in trying to live off their own harvest as our new amigos did; and not one of our suburban bodies measured up to that of the smallest campesino body at this worksite, even those among us who a week ago thought we were fit.

For it is bet’ter … that wayyyyyyyy.

The house had taken shape and was almost ready for roofing, and we had become legitimate, if very quiet community members. Our group felt the strange dignity of being the lowest in the community, the ones who dig.

Day 5: We Are Evaluated
As the great theories have it, human development comes in five stages. Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, Erickson’s stages of psychosocial development, Tuckman’s stages of small group development, Kübler-Ross’s stages of dying. In fact, story is normally broken down into the five parts of plot. There are said to be five stages of love. Even rumors of Apple Computer product launches are said to come in five waves.  The best things come in stages, and every discipline has its own set of them. In all, by the time we reach the last stage of anything we have gone through something substantial, we are changed as individuals and as members of a group. 

The owner of the new home was campesino Alfredo Espinoza, a short, leather skinned, tough-looking rancher in cowboy clothes. Alfredo had more similarities to suburban American parents than differences, despite his farm roots, despite the fact that his wife, our cook, had lost their male heir at birth five years earlier:  he loved to laugh, at least at break time. He loved his children and a work well done. But Alfredo had one thing we did not have: a worn-to-smoothness, well-balanced, hand-forged pick with a custom handle he carved for it out of a branch, and now he clasped it and stretched his hand out toward me and handed me his axe. I felt like he was handing me my diploma, that this whole rite of passage made me a real teacher.

Digging, the petty distractions fled as a group of disparate, occasionally dissonant individual students gradually became a team, and we, as chaperones, became real teachers.

Leadership is the synthesis of our collective goals, realized as a culture all its own. If you find a school or organization riddled with competing agendas or egos, complex challenges, or core functionality issues, go dig a hole together. You could save a lot of consulting fees. 

At last we were coming to the end of our trip and, now acclimated somewhere between two worlds; I expected re-entry would be the hardest part. It often is, because what makes any lesson great is that we have been transformed.

Our students dug down deeper than any grave and left a lot of impatience, fear, cliquish behavior, victim mentality—they shed whatever ego and other stuff that gets in the way of humility and tolerance across cultures—in the earth that they all dug together, and then we left. 

A great lesson moves through all the stages of personal and group transformation.  In the end, students become a part of some shared task or purpose that transcends the lesson. We had a history, a team where everyone had an identity, an objective, a language, a routin ...a culture. If you can get that into your classroom, you should have an A. Better still, the last stage of all good learning and life is a sense of connection to larger purpose, a great sense of unity and belongingness to all creation.

Most of our well-gloved kids will never again have occasion to stand that deep in real earth that they have dug with their own hands. I packed the pickaxe in my suitcase and, luckily, it made it through security and into my office—that was exactly one year after we were attacked on 9/11. But this only makes it more valuable and more artful an object, and I love handling it, pacing across my office when things seem hard and I need to remember what the real work is; it probably looks crazy; but the weighting is just right and the shaft has taken on a wonderful luster even though some of the white, igneous dust from way down there is still impregnated in it. 

Miles of red, green and yellow fields and the seven active volcanoes all around humbled our students as they provided the most basic labor on earth. And, in the end, what we all learned about charity or even about houses or the digging of holes doesn’t seem nearly as important as the learning, almost too simple for words, that holes need digging. 

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