A long long time ago when I was a student at the University of Houston one of my required classes was World Geography. I had never cared much about geography perhaps because my previous teachers had made it seem so dry. It appeared to be more about maps, climate and economics than people so it fascinated me about as much as learning about the composition of dust. So I went to my first World Geography class with a negative attitude. In addition to having little interest in the subject matter I had heard verifiable rumors the professor who taught the course was hard nosed, all business and gave out low grades. The only bright spot I had was learning that one of my close high school friends would also be in the class and we had already decided to sit together and study together just to get the onerous task done.
The professor was Dr. June Hyer, a retired military officer who walked with the bearing of someone who had spent years in the Army. Her assistant also had a military background and from the outset there was no nonsense allowed during the hour that Dr. Hyer delivered more information than my mind could categorize. I had to write notes so quickly that my hand cramped and then I would go home and review what I had heard just to make sense of it. I thought that surely this would be the one class that would destroy my GPA but I had to take it now or later so I ignored my desire to drop the class.
After the deadline for dropping a course there were decidedly fewer students in the room. It felt as though those of us who had remained had already passed some kind of unspoken test. Dr. Hyer still exhibited her unflinchingly rod straight bearing but her lectures changed from a machine gun recitation of facts to a consideration of the human element of geography. Suddenly I found my interest snapping to attention and as each week passed I knew that I was learning things about the world that were important to understand. Dr. Hyer was introducing me to information and ideas that were fascinating and I changed from fearing her class to looking forward to each session. My new found interest also translated into good grades on her tests and projects because I was soon seeking even more knowledge about the different countries and people out of a fascination that she had awakened in me.
Dr. Hyer had traveled all over the world and I appreciated the depth of her experience but what influenced me most was her continual insistence that the very geography of an area often determined the thinking and actions of its people. She poked fun at individuals who insisted on overlaying the ways of western civilization on populations where our way of doing things was unlikely to work. She noted that our good intentions of helping people especially in third world countries often only made things worse.
I recall one lecture in which she spoke of a religious group that travelled into the hinterland of a struggling South American country bringing baby bottles and formula. What initially appeared to be a lovely gesture turned into a disaster for the mothers who accepted the gift. They did not have a source of clean water for preparing the formula nor did they understand the need for sterilization of the nipples and bottles. Soon babies were critically ill with severe diarrhea when they would have been better off simply nursing from their mothers. Her point was to critique the kind of worldwide stereotyping of different cultures, countries and even areas of the United States that we too often are guilty of doing.
On another occasion she proved the point that we were far too uneducated in the realities of the world by listing a number of places that grew large amounts of rice. She asked us to choose the place that we believed produced the largest crop of that grain. Among the candidates was Harris County, Texas which created a little titter of laughter around the classroom. Imagine our surprise when we learned that the greatest amount of the world’s rice was grown right in our own backyard in Houston, Texas. It was the kind of eye opening experience that she provided over and over again.
I have never forgotten Dr. Hyer because perhaps more than anyone she taught me to be circumspect in my assessments of people and situations from around the world. I learned from her that things are not always as they seem and that our western ways of economics and politics are not a good fit in every situation. She helped me to appreciate the history and cultures of people who at first glance appear to be primitive and backward in their thinking. She often commented on the common sense of individuals and countries that those of us in industrialized countries often overlook.
Years later I would read the great novel Things Fall Apart that explored the beautiful culture and organization of an African tribe. With the coming of colonialism and missionaries who believed they were doing good the fabric that had held the community together began to fray and then collapse. I remembered Dr. Hyer as I read the poetically descriptive story and I wept to know that we so often misjudge communities because we have not taken the time to really know them.
Our country and our world is large and diverse and yet we all too often consider the problems of a nation, a city or a neighborhood based on our individual experiences rather than taking the time to learn about and consider the actual history and cultures of the individuals who sometimes confound us. Perhaps if we spent more time getting to know and appreciate all of the people of the world instead of focusing only on what we see as problems we would learn to assist rather than dominate, compromise rather than judge.
I suppose that if everyone had the privilege of meeting someone as extraordinary as Dr. June Hyer we might all live in greater harmony. More than anything she taught me the lesson of respect for differences and that with all of our economic success we are not all that different from anyone else in the world. In the end we are all using the resources and the talents that we have to get by from one day to the next. Somehow I have thought of all that I learned from her during this time of Covid-19 and worldwide economic and political upheaval. I realized that we are all in this collective horror together and our best hope of making it through is to share our concerns and ideas with compassion and a willingness to admit that boasting about being the best never really does much good for anyone.