I think one of the ways a person’s work holds meaning is through the seeing of other persons during the course of the day. Seeing. Bearing witness to. Your life intersects with that customer, that client or colleague, that student. There in front of you, there on the phone, a person, beloved by God. It’s one of the things that I remind myself of, that I need reminding of.
To be seen is a human need, but being seen sometimes happens so rarely – or at least it can feel that way – and a person at work with his or her eyes open can see, really see, so many other persons. I see you, says the body language, the voice, the eyes. Existence confirmed, affirmed. There’s not enough of that going around without having to ask for it with Facebook posts and Twitter tweets.
There’s a scene in Cheri Register’s memoir, Packinghouse Daughter, that involves a teacher seeing her students. Register’s memoir is about growing up in Albert Lea, Minnesota during the 1959 meatpacker’s strike at Wilson's, her father, one of the striking union members. The prolonged strike leveled families economically and divided the community. In this scene, Register speaks of her ninth-grade English teacher, Miss Yates, and what she did one day.
"It is still baffling to me that I also remember Miss Yates as a rule breaker. One day she simply asked us, quietly and discreetly, to put our heads on our desks and cover our eyes. Breathing eraser dust, our cheeks numb against the cold metal desktops, we waited for the next instructions.
“Now,” she said, “if you have a parent out on strike at Wilson’s, please raise your hand.”
There was to be no mention of the strike in the public school classrooms, the superintendent had decreed, and any students found conversing about it on school property would be disciplined. I stretched my hand high, regretting that my classmates couldn’t see it and that I had to miss this chance to identify who my allies were.
Miss Yates, a die-hard Republican, was the only one of my teachers at Southwest Junior High to risk acknowledging the present condition of our lives. I don’t remember if there were consequences. I got the A I felt I deserved. She never mentioned the strike again….”
There’s enough ambiguity in this passage to show that even Register wasn’t entirely sure of the teacher’s motive. But the tone of tenderness in the retelling of this scene suggests the teacher did this out of compassion rather than scrutiny. In any case, Register was clearly relieved to be seen, to be known in her full circumstance. In turn, she saw Miss Yates.
[Photo: A turtle in the road, which we saw in time to stop the car and not run over it or the nesting hole she was digging.]