Dr. Berit Mexia: Being and Time
by Ken Goldstein
Iolani School Bulletin, Fall 1997
Now we come to what could be called the most characteristic element of Taoism-in-action. In Chinese, it is known as Wu Wei. It is also the most characteristic element of Pooh-in-action. In English, it is not known as much of anything in particular. We believe that it’s time that someone noticed it and called it something, so we will call in the Pooh Way.
- Hoff, The Tao of Pooh
In your life, you should only be so lucky as to meet an individual who can teach you something no one else can. In your life, you should only be so lucky as to study under someone who can bring you to think in a way you previously could not imagine. In your life, you should only be so lucky as to have a friend share with you the true gift of learning, to know a person who knows what it means to see things differently, to spend time with someone who truly changes the way your mind works and sends you down the roads less traveled. If that happens to you just once, you have had the good fortune to experience a miracle.
I was that lucky. I was a student of Berit Mexia.
In the Spring of 1979, in the second semester of our Junior Year, a few of us disco children were sitting around trying to figure out yet another way to beat The System at Iolani. Of course no one could ever really beat The System at Iolani, but that never stopped a few of us from trying desperately year after year. The question at hand was how we might be able to get through the semester elective in the Religion Department we owed the school for graduation without actually taking any of the classes offered in the catalogue. There was no particular reason for this act of intellectual rebellion, other than the fact that we knew we could cause a stir if we actually made it happen.
Now it came to pass that this same Buck-The-System group of us had in our Sophomore Year been assigned to a study hall under the tutelage of one Berit Mexia, Ph.D. It was mostly in our procrastination around getting through daily trigonometry drills and chemistry problem sets that we would strike up conversations with Frau Mexia, and it was in these same conversational travels that we learned she had studied under someone named Martin Heidegger in the Black Forest of Germany. We also learned that she had written a doctoral dissertation on the meaning of subjectivity in the writings of Soren Kierkegaard, and that when she wasn’t brushing up on her Plato and Aristotle she was delving into the role of Zen in the advancement of western thought.
What I remember most was the gold pendant she wore most days that displayed the three words that told her whole story: “Live Love Laugh.”
It was always that simple. No matter what we talked about, no matter how serious the stream of consciousness or how complex the logical argument, the take-away was always one of heart. The subject of which we were getting a taste was known as Philosophy, which previously had meant little more to me than deconstructing the lyrical refrains of “Brain Damage” on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Frau Mexia put it to me in a different way, she asked me one question: “How do you get a goose out of a bottle?” She said that one would keep a highly disciplined student busy for perhaps a year, maybe two.
So that would be the ticket, we would get Frau Mexia to take a one period break each day from teaching German to teach us Philosophy, and we would convince Headmaster David Coon to let us take that class as our religion elective. When we asked Frau Mexia if she would teach us, she naively agreed, mostly because she knew we didn’t have a prayer at changing the Iolani curriculum in both creating a class that had never been taught and in shoe-horning it into a department where it was a stretch at best. But we got her promise to teach us a survey class in Philosophy if we got it approved, and when twenty of us signed a petition and said we needed this course for own personal well-being and presented it to Headmaster Coon, he of course said no.
That is, he said no the first time we asked. He also said no the second time. And I think the third. His primary concern was that at our tender age we could not yet appreciate the depth of the material that would be put before us, that we had not yet achieved intellectual context in our lives to put in perspective the heresy of Socrates or the torment of Nietzsche. The reason that I know this was his concern is because he told me, and I was appalled, not so much because of his lack of faith in our intellectual development to date (which was well warranted, we were after all rebels) but because he had not yet considered the gift of the teacher who would teach us. Heck, I was in sell mode, I had to get this deal closed. Don’t ask me how, but somehow he said yes.
And that was when my life changed. I sure hadn’t planned on it.
Remember, this started as a way to Beat The System. So when Frau Mexia showed up to teach us Philosophy in the fall of 1979, in the first semester of our Senior Year, and handed us Plato’s Apology for our first night’s reading, imagine our surprise. This was not going to be a cake walk. We were going to work. We were also going to learn.
I could take you through that class and tell you all the things we learned because I remember most of them. I could name for you all the writers whose works we read because I still have their books on my shelf. I could tell you how Frau Mexia created a seamless arc connecting the ancient classicists to the modern existentialists and then bridged the gap between western linear logic and eastern mysticism. But that is not what you need to know about Berit Mexia. What you need to know about Frau Mexia was what she gave to us of herself, what she embodied that was unique, and why my debt to her will never be repaid.
First impressions in literature mean just as much as they do in social and business settings. The way in which an idea is introduced is every bit as important as the actual content of the idea. This is the difference between instruction and teaching. Any reasonably well-read or well-versed individual can usually be counted on to instruct, but it takes something much less tangible than memory to teach. Most people really do not “get” Zarathustra because their first impressions of it were not well framed, and they spend perhaps the next twenty years with a bad taste in their mouth for its core conceit because they have only a vague notion of its meaning. Too little knowledge of anything really is dangerous because in the end all we can retain are our impressions. This was Headmaster Coon’s fear, and it is legitimate. Enter Frau Mexia. She would not allow her students to spend their lives backing out of the confusion that too easily emerges as the result of careless instruction. She took us forward into each idea one layer at a time, continually took our temperature on meaning, and only then turned the page. That is what it means to teach, and it is a rare gift to have as well as to share. I don’t think she knew this, she just did it.
It is a loving demon, this thing called Knowledge. It is not a casual curiosity, it is a lifelong commitment. It will consume you if it is not guided by discipline such that it can become Wisdom. These are not just words. The Teacher keeps the demon at bay.
And then there is the person. Who was she?
As humble as she was, Frau Mexia simply refused to conform. She refused to see the world as you and I see it. She refused to accept cynicism as a given, she refused to seek selfish means, she refused to acknowledge the ordinary as anything but extraordinary. She knew that it was an honor to be a teacher, and she saw her opportunity in life to learn and teach as privileges one and the same. Her life was about sharing wisdom, and her life was about humor. Her mission (if she had one, and I don’t think she thought she did) was to get you to look at whatever you were looking at in a way you just couldn’t have on your own. And after a while you’d actually get so brazen as to think you were getting there on your own, and she’d just laugh an innocent laugh and suddenly you were humbled. You knew you had not arrived there on your own.
Just when you would capture the essence of Hegel she would rip the rug out from under dialectics and throw you into Kant. Were you to digest the categorical imperative, she might just point you to the poetry of Kafka. And lest you ever got too full of yourself, you were never more than a verse away from her favorite philosopher of all, Winnie the Pooh (I kid you not, pretty much everything you need to know is all there in the first four books of Pooh).
There was only one point–there was always another way to look at the world, and whatever you were thinking today, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t immerse yourself fully in trying to see the world another way. This was intellectual rigor, this was academic frustration, and this was the joy of going inside and making your mind work at the level God might have hoped or even intended when we were created. She taught us to think, to reason, to intuit, to never take our minds for granted, and to never take ourselves too seriously. In lesson after lesson we learned that wisdom is knowledge of our ignorance. Most importantly, she made it fun.
I know I have not said it right. I cannot say it right. I can only feel it. Every single day, I still feel it.
Philosophy means “the love of knowledge.” I was seventeen years old when I began studying Philosophy under Berit Mexia, she opened this door for me and my friends in the Class of 1980 and she went on to teach this class year after year, long after we disco-generation punks graduated from college and came out here in the world where life and business are too often about less interesting and less noble pursuits. I know she touched others as she touched me because it happened, and I know they are thankful as am I. It has been a lifetime of discipline and a lifetime of learning. This was what her life was about. That, and a light that emanated from her in a way I still cannot describe. She was just too unique, too brilliant, too different, too focused, beaming with too much joy.
I am still trying to get that goose out of the bottle.
Live Love Laugh.