So, as I think I mentioned to you, we had our classes, but we also had to work with masters of our choice in six competency areas; athletics, art, craft, magic, spiritual growth, and healing. Sometimes that meant they tutored us, sometimes they just told us which classes to take. Even though each of them had a particular teaching area, they also took students in several other areas, and some people worked with the same person for all six areas.
Charlie was officially the craft teacher; he taught both ecological horticulture and chainsaw operation and maintenance as crafts. I knew a few students who had talked him into teaching horticulture as an art instead, that sort of thing, and there were also rumors that he taught spiritual development—but whenever anyone asked about his spiritual practice he growled and nobody could get a word out of him about it. But I’d noticed that persistence went a long way with Charlie. And we got along. And I’d seen his library.
So, one day I just asked him if he would teach me. He said he didn’t know what I was talking about and tried to walk away, but I followed him, so he told me he didn’t know anything I couldn’t learn on my own and to stop bothering him. Then he walked away faster. But I’d deliberately asked him when no one else was around, which freed me to make the next argument in my case.
“I want what you have, and I’m willing to go to any lengths to get it,” I said to his receding back. It’s a slight paraphrase from the AA Big Book, and it stopped him, but he didn’t turn around. “Hey Lao Tsu,” I added, “what, are you trying to make me ask you three times?” I’d heard somewhere that Lao Tsu wrote the Tao Te Ching only after someone had asked him for his wisdom three times. I don’t know if it’s true, but I added a third request of my own, just in case. “I dare you to teach a young numbskull like me!” And Charlie turned around and came back to me.
“Alright,” he growled, “but let’s get this thing clear. I’m not your buddy, and I’m not your cheerleader. I’m the bastard that’s gonna make you do the things you don’t have the balls to make yourself do. I’ll meet you tomorrow at the Martin House twenty minutes before dawn.” And he spun on his heel and walked away. I let him go. For a man who ostensibly hadn’t wanted to teach me to begin with, it took him a surprisingly few number of seconds to come up with a lesson plan.
It took me a few hours to find out exactly when dawn would be for our area, and to find out what the Martin House was and where it was. It turned out to be a bird house; a martin is a kind of bird. But that night I set my alarm, and there I was the next morning, twenty minutes before dawn.
Charlie was nowhere in evidence. I sighed, repressed the urge to smile, and looked deliberately up at the Martin House until I felt him put his hand on my shoulder. I knew what he was doing, but I still startled a bit, which must have pleased him. He was dressed for the dawn chill and carried two squares of black foam for us to sit on. I asked him what we were going to be doing, and he told me were going to listen to birds.
“But I don’t know anything about birds!” I protested. "I'm not a birder!" He gave me the look such an inane comment deserved (I mean really, complaining to the teacher that you don’t already know the material?) before explaining.
“Neither am I. We’re going to listen to birds to see if we can’t grow you some ears.”
“Wait,” I told him, “yesterday you said I don’t have balls, now apparently I don’t have ears? Any other parts of my anatomy you care to deny?” Charlie just laughed.
“Don’t take it so hard,” he said. “Everybody needs a boogeyman.” He wasn't growling, though. There still wasn't enough light for me to see his face clearly, and if Charlie carried a flashlight it was still in his pocket, but he seemed looser, more relaxed than I'd ever seen him. He seemed happy.
What Charlie meant by growing me some ears was teaching me to differentiate bird sounds—not to identify them, just to know that this sound is different from that sound. It’s a lot harder than you’d think. He set me to counting species by sound in five minute intervals, and he wouldn’t let me leave until I could match his count for three consecutive blocks of time. We went through the same process every morning for a few weeks, and then again a few times after the spies he sent out caught me not paying attention to the sounds I heard. I bet normal professors don't send out spies. By mid summer, listening carefully was an established habit, and the whole auditory world came alive for me.
But he was right; I wouldn't have done it without him to blame for my early mornings. And who was his boogeyman? I suppose I must have been. After all, I "made" him teach me.