I’ve come to see my identity, my sense of self, as the sum total of all the encounters I’ve had across nearly six decades: each friend, family member, student, colleague, and teacher has uniquely touched my life. Most encounters have benefited, taught, or improved me in some small or large way. Others have wounded or diminished me. An iconic lyric from the Broadway musical, Wicked, proclaims “because I knew you, I’ve been changed for good.” In honor of American Education Week (November 12-16, 2018) I’d like to update it to “because you taught me, I’ve been changed for good.”
I had forty teachers between kindergarten and 12th grade, and I’ve lost count of the number in college and grad school. A couple of them were dreadful, most of them were OK, and a few of them were great. I have the great privilege–especially at my age–to be facebook friends with a couple of them, including my second and fifth grade teachers. I’ve only recently reconnected with my fifth grade teacher, after not having seen or heard from her in 40 years. And something that astonishes me, is how when she “likes” something I post, her approval means a great deal to me…to the little boy inside the man. I feel like she has stuck a proverbial gold star on my facebook page. The imprint of a good teacher on our lives is an enduring legacy.
It is the great privilege of my life to work as a college professor, preparing future members for the ancient and noble tradition of teaching. I like to challenge them to consider the broader enterprise of teaching and of its enormous potential to improve the world at both the micro and macro levels. We have almost come to take it for granted that teachers will come alongside our children and guide, direct, instruct, and support them. Yet along the way we tend to also ask teachers to take on even greater challenges. “Dear American teachers: Can you help future generations to pollute less, to abstain from drugs, to treat one another more fairly, to stop bullying, to be less racist, to be better informed citizens, oh, and would you also mind keeping a gun in your desk and stop our children from being shot?”
A year ago, to my great surprise, I found myself lying on an operating table in Virginia having my chest cut open and my defective mitral valve repaired in a complicated, five hour-operation. My surgery was a great success in that my valve was repaired and my life was saved and I’m healthier than ever. My brilliant young surgeon described my condition as a forme fruste, because it was atypical and a confusing puzzle to solve. I think of him as one of my life’s heroes now. But then I also find myself reflecting on my doctor’s teachers. Who were the ones who inspired him to study hard? And who was the teacher who put an arm around his young shoulders, led him through an experiment, and helped him to recognize his enormous potential in science? In rare instances, like Helen Keller’s Anne Sullivan, teachers get the recognition they deserve. But more typically they are lost to history. Who were the teachers who helped to shape and form the world’s great artists, scientists, political leaders, authors, and humanitarians?
Who were the teachers who did that for you? Who helped to make you who you are today? For those of you who are working in America’s classrooms, I salute and thank you. Who are the students who will pass through our doors who may need that word of guidance or encouragement to find their calling and attain their true potential? If a teacher did that for you, pass along the favor to the next generation. If you lacked that in your life, then be that teacher to someone else that you needed as a child. And for everyone….observe American Education Week by thanking a teacher this week. I believe the old adage, “if you can read this, thank a teacher” should be updated to “if you like who you’ve become, thank a teacher.” For my part….Thank you Mrs. Riggin, Mrs. Sells, Doc Haltunen, Mrs. Lager, Dr. Lindley, Dr. Sellers and all of the rest of you who made me who I am today. I’m forever grateful.