Encountering a Most Unlikely Teacher

Terry Lieb Judging Others 6 Comments

When you think of someone who can be your teacher, what comes to mind? Someone older? Wiser? More accomplished? Someone with special expertise or who seems to have their life “together”? Is it possible you may have missed some “unlikely” teachers (and what they had to offer) because they didn’t come wrapped in packaging you recognized?

Recently Rita and I were driving through a small town in Vermont and spotted a very short, thin, stooped senior woman shuffling very slowly beside the road using an old collapsible baby stroller for support. 

Immediately Rita and I looked at each other and decided we needed to stop and offer help. About 50 feet beyond where she was slowly shuffling there was a driveway leading to a house with a for sale sign on it.  I pulled in carefully to avoid a set of bed springs, obviously being discarded.

I got out quickly to make sure the woman didn’t pass the driveway before I could ask if she needed help. When I looked down the road, though, I realized that at the pace she was moving it would be several more minutes before she would be able to cover the short distance separating us. As she got nearer, I recognized her slow shuffle/slide may have been because her hiking boots appeared to be several sizes too large.

When she got in speaking distance, I introduced myself and Rita, and asked her if we could help her out.

“Yes,” she responded immediately with no hesitation, “you could give me a ride back to my apartment. It’s not far, about a mile.” It didn’t take a calculator to estimate, at her speed (speed is probably not the best word) it would’ve taken her a few hours to cover that mile or so!

I said, “Sure, no problem” before I realized that we had so much packed into the car there was no extra seat! The only option was for one of us to wait there while the other one drove Carol home and I was appointed the chauffeur.

Carol had several items in her quite old, somewhat compromised baby stroller. A few food items and a well-used Bible. Being a man of many questions, my list began growing immediately!

The task of folding up the old stroller was extremely frustrating. As I struggled to get it to collapse, I wondered how—even if I was successful—I would ever be able to fit it into the already over-packed car! 

Carol chimed in, “I wish I could help but I don’t ever remember trying to fold it up!” I finally located the release latch which was covered with a variety of substances, none of which I could identify. Somehow I jammed Carol’s treasures in the car and got her situated in the front seat. 

As Carol gave me the directions to her apartment and I backed out of the driveway, my patient and understanding spouse offered a wave and a good luck smile from the discarded bed springs she had parked herself on, and returned her attention to the book she was reading.

Carol began talking immediately, seldom pausing to catch her breath. I could barely get a word in edgewise, which as any of you who know me realize is quite a feat!

“I got that Bible from the pastor this morning. Someone stole my Bible last week right out of my stroller while I was in the restroom. Can you imagine that?” 

I said, “Well, at least we can hope they are reading it!”

 Carol displayed a huge grin and said, “Yeah, hopefully they will get to Exodus and come across the eighth commandment!” I knew “thou shall not steal” was a commandment but would have been in a jam if asked what number it was.

Carol continued, “Actually I like this old Bible better than the one I had. It lays open by itself, no need to lay something heavy on it.” Obviously her Bible gets opened more than mine does, I thought wryly. As she continued on with her mile-a-minute monologue, I got the sense that Carol was starved for conversation and was taking full advantage of this unique opportunity to be listened to.

At one point she interrupted her soliloquy just long enough to catch her breath. Impressed by her gumption in undertaking what would have been a long walk and intuiting from her down-to-earth attitude that she wouldn’t be offended, I asked her how old she was. It turns out she was “only” about my age! 

My surprise must have shown because she looked at me with a mischievous smile. “Oh, I know what you were thinking,” she said, “‘Wow! she looks much younger than that!’” Then she laughed (more like cackled) and winked at me. 

The mile or so passed quickly and soon we arrived at the complex where Carol occupied a rent-subsidized housing unit with which she seemed quite pleased. As I pulled into the parking lot she asked if I knew what that tree was beside the building. When I said I wasn’t sure, she informed me it was a crab apple tree. 

“Do you see all those crows on the ground under the tree?” she said. “What I don’t understand is why some of my neighbors don’t like crows. I don’t think the crows ever did anything to harm them. It’s amazing how we find fault with a lot of things around us for no reason!”

Carol was still offering a variety of observations as I parked the car and began to get her belongings out. I placed her treasures back in the stroller and helped her out of the car.

“You’re a rare bird,” she said as we began our goodbyes. “Nobody stops to help strangers much anymore!” I’ve been called ‘a rare bird’ more than once. This time I took it as a compliment.  

I asked Carol if I could take her picture. “I’m not sure when anyone asked to take my picture last!” she said, standing up straighter and smiling for the camera. When I mentioned I might write about her on my blog she retorted, “Your what? Good luck!”

As Carol shuffled down the sidewalk, some folks came out of the building and I noticed they gave her a wide berth and no acknowledgment. I realized that Carol’s eccentricities might be off-putting but I couldn’t help but think that they were missing out on some real gold by not looking past them to get to know the spunky live wire I had had the pleasure of spending time with. She, too, was a “rare bird”—in the best sense.

Heading back to rescue the gorgeous lady I left on the bed springs, I couldn’t wait to share my experience with her and start unpacking its many gifts. In our short time together, Carol had impressed so many lessons upon me—some with what she said, but many just from who she was and how she lived her life.

First of all, Carol had no problem accepting help. This is something I struggle with to this day. I’m very comfortable in the position of offering help, but accepting—or even worse, asking for—help is a different story! 

Then there was Carol’s disarming sense of humor in the midst of what I saw as a challenging life journey. (I know what you were thinking, “Wow, she looks much younger than that,” too!) I wonder if I would be so upbeat in the same circumstances. 

Carol’s contentment with her modest accommodations also led Rita and I into a very fruitful discussion in which we examined our options regarding future life care communities from a whole different perspective. Did we really need all the high-priced amenities that had seemed so important? What is actually necessary for quality of life?

And, of course, there was Carol’s question as to why we judge for no good reason. Again, I find this something that I still struggle with. Personally, I sometimes find it easier to connect with and learn from overlooked and marginalized persons than I do with people I perceive as privileged, entitled, or think they are superior because of their wealth or position. But both are judgments.

How many opportunities for new insights, learnings and healthier perspectives have I missed out on in the past based on my own preconceived ideas, judgments, and prejudices? 

My brief—just 20 minute—meeting with Carol has generated literally hours of both dialogue with Rita and private reflection. I’m still mulling over the learnings and takeaways from this encounter with an unlikely teacher. Not the least of which is to look out for the other “unlikely teachers” who may be going unnoticed in my life at this very moment!


  1. What unlikely teachers have you had? What did you learn from them?
  2. What clouds your vision in recognizing or acknowledging “unlikely” teachers? What prejudices, judgment or preconceived ideas do you carry that are most likely to keep you from recognizing what someone else might have to teach you? 
  3. Is opening ourselves up to a new perspective of any type just too frightening? Do we really understand the true value and transformative potential when we choose to step outside our carefully-crafted comfort zone? What might the simple exposure cause us to re-examine in our relationships with others, in our opinion of what is right or wrong in the world, or even our understanding of God?
  4. Think of someone you do not admire or get along with. What can you learn from them? Although it is valid to learn from their negative example (“they teach me what I don’t want to be like”), try to find a positive lesson they can teach you.
  5. Why do many of us struggle with accepting help? Do we strive to be self-reliant to avoid vulnerability? Are you aware that vulnerability is a key component of intimacy? Is our fear of true intimacy surfacing yet again?
  6. What do you feel is necessary to be happy and grateful? What level of material things? What position in society? What degree of social contact and relationships with friends and family? Is it possible to stay positive without all—or any—of the things we think we need?
  7. Do you believe there is anyone on the planet that has nothing of value to teach? Why or why not? How might life be different if we viewed every single person we met as a teacher? Are you willing to give it a try?

Banner Photo by Element 5 Digital on Unsplash.com

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Anthony Bifulco
Anthony Bifulco
December 1, 2021 2:57 pm

I hope Rita wasn’t frozen by the time you returned. We have a neighbor who we hear when we go to the pool in the morning for exercise talking the same way to whoever she thinks might listen and believe she is also starved for conversation. And she doesn’t mind sharing her opinion about life in general. It certainly keeps life interesting. Another winner Terry.

December 1, 2021 5:26 pm

Your discussion questions are always thought provoking and encourage conversation that one would not likely consider as we go about our daily lives focused only on our own problems or current task at hand. Thanks for the reminders.

Sue Barron
Sue Barron
December 1, 2021 6:54 pm

I admire you and Rita for stopping to help this woman. I know I would hesitate, worried that I’d get myself into an uncomfortable situation that would be hard to get extricated from. I need to be more open to accepting opportunities to help others. Look at all the things I could learn and all the happiness I could give to someone who might be desperately needing it. Thank you for your example. You were my teacher today.
Sue Barron

Scott Lieb
Scott Lieb
December 2, 2021 7:33 am

Looks like you stopped to help her but she in fact helped you and Rita and all of us who have read this. Very inspiring and i will share with share with others.

December 3, 2021 9:17 am

Another great posting, you always make me think and look inwards. I am way too judgmental, My wife calls it the world according to Bill. Keep on working on it for sure but 1 thing I know for sure. Any time we help someone, we usually find out the truth to the words “blessed to be a blessing’. No matter what the helpful intent. I am always on the receiving end. A God wink moment

Daniel Wilcox
January 19, 2022 1:06 pm

Powerful questions. I just copied them out for my own reflection. Your intriguing meeting reminds me of an old guy hitchhiking on a narrow street here on the central coast. I don’t usually stop because of traffic, but there was none that morning so I stopped and gave him a ride. And began to converse with him. Turns out he was 78, but headed for his daily job carwashing several miles away. But that was the least surprise for me. It was his attitude. While I had been worrying and feeling sad because some of my goals hadn’t worked out,… Read more »