We All Have Our Teacher Story
May 29, 2020
We all have our teacher story. That one person who made the difference, who believed in us or connected with us or at least shared a genuine laugh at some point and connected with us as if we were real people. As if we mattered all for ourselves, as ourselves, not just for who we were, but for whom they saw we could someday be. Maybe it was your second grade teacher or maybe it was the one who sponsored the forensics team junior year. I bet if you think about it, some adult at some point along the way mentored you, showed you how to be a person, or let you know that they valued you for who you were.
My teacher story today has a rocky path. I was a headstrong 9th grader, determined to be a poet. I had dabbled in poetry for several years before that, but when I landed in 9th grade English that fall, I was no longer messing around. I was serious, I knew what I was doing, and no one had better get in my way. Especially not my teacher that year who (while also a poetry enthusiast) in my mind did not get it. He encouraged me to revise poems, and I believed at the time that a poem was as if delivered through inspiration from the voices of the divine through my pen and was an untainted product of pure honesty that should not be touched once it was out on paper. I did my best to ignore his advice, cast him as not knowing what true poets did (I liked the idea of Shelley on the boat unbracing himself before the storm), and get on with my serious business.
Mark Twain once wrote, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” As I moved on through my high school years, I came to realize just how much my 9th grade English teacher actually had known and longed to be back in the classroom with him. Luckily as 12th grade approached, I had a chance to study with him again. I spent that year trying to soak up every bit of wisdom he had, about literature, about poetry, about simplicity in life, about values of people and the work of one’s hands and heart. I was so enthusiastic about being with him when Senior year began that I think it took him a couple of months to figure out if I really meant it, if that smart-aleck kid from three years before had actually come around. But he never gave me a kick about it—about how, to be fair, obnoxious I’d been our first round together. Instead, he shared his wisdom and his craft—for he was a poet as well, a truly gifted one, and a deep philosopher—without hesitation, without condition. And that meant that he was a truly great teacher.
I think that’s really it, in the end, about great teachers (which is related, although not the same thing as great teaching): great teachers are willing always truly to see who is in front of them, and when they see a willing or eager recipient, to give and give and give, without hesitation, without condition, without expectation of reciprocity or acknowledgement or reward. Great teachers simply can’t help themselves from being selfless. It’s why they work too much, too hard, for too many months in a row. It’s why summer vacation isn’t really a vacation but a necessary recharging of the batteries, because such unconditional giving takes it out of you after a long while at it. It’s why we have to take times explicitly to say thank you, to show our thanks. Because they’re not doing it for that reward and will keep on doing their incredible work thanklessly without asking for it. It’s because for many, the reward is the chance to work with a willing recipient of one’s wisdom and care and nurturing.
If you’ve not taken a moment to think about the people who have put all of themselves into your children this year, I encourage you to take a moment to do so this weekend. And if you have a moment and are inspired to do so, I encourage you to nominate one of them for the Class of 2020 Faculty Chair.
Be well and take good care.