Love of limelight helps teacher illuminate

"FROM MY father, I've inherited a love of puns, a tendency toward diabetes, and a habit of taking take over conversations. That last quality, the hamminess, serves him in good stead as a Hindu priest and served me well as a stand-up comic and a teacher. I would hesitate to call myself charismatic, but I don't mind the attention of a room full of people. And sometimes I can turn that attention into something wonderful. "

I had one of those moments a few years ago, when teaching a Politics In Modern Science Fiction class at UC Berkeley. I had my students read, among other novels, Ursula Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness," a fantasy about a planet where the people have no permanent gender. (They take on suitable genders only when they mate.)

As I wrote the lesson plan, I had to decide on milestones for our first discussion of Le Guin. I knew where I wanted to start, but which destination would be most useful, and what route would cover the most interesting scenery? What was the right question to ask? Comedians and teachers know that the audience needs careful guidance, that a lesson plan or a set of jokes must flow unexpectedly yet gracefully between fascinating arguments. I already knew that I wanted to mention a passage from Le Guin's introduction:

"Yes, indeed the people in it (the book) are androgynous, but that doesn't mean that I'm predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I'm merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are."

I wrote the lesson plan, changed into official teacher clothes, and switched my scruffy backpack for the briefcase that connotes authority. I entered the classroom, took attendance, and we started discussing the book. I read off the few sentences from the introduction.

And then I asked: How are we "already" androgynous? Where does gender NOT affect us? And the moment was electric. I looked around the room. Every student I saw was gazing into space, not blankly, but thinking, for a second, two, three.

I had asked something they hadn't asked themselves before, and they were sifting their experiences, seeking, seeing with new eyes, forming new synapses and making connections.

And several voices called out at once, bursting with the enthusiasm of discovery. "On the rowing team." In Wu Shu class." Over the Internet." And we made connections and put them in categories, and talked about the alien and familiar world that Le Guin had written about. I successfully laid the foundation for my next lesson, about the Self and the Other in "Darkness." The students shared insights that broadened and deepened our discussion. As with all good lesson plans, mine proved to be the skeleton, not the flesh; the map, not the territory.

Le Guin writes in that same introduction:

"Finally, when we're done with it, we may find — if it's a good novel — that we're a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it's very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed."

I can't say, either, how I was changed, or what my students learned from that Friday class. But I saw something happen in that moment, when my question lingered unanswered in the air. Even without religious chants or scripted jokes, I helped 20 people see their lives in a new light. It gave me a high so strong, so clear, that I never wanted to come down.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each Sunday. You can write to her at