“There's no word in the language I revere more than 'teacher.' My heart sings when a kid refers to me as his teacher, and it always has. I've honored myself and the entire family of man by becoming a teacher.”
This week, I know I will not be the only one to invoke Pat Conroy's Prince of Tides. All over America, during Teacher Appreciation Week, teachers and their craft are honored with public fanfare and the more personal gestures as well. It's the time of year when some teachers are counting down the days until school's out for summer, and then others are figuring out how to make every instructional minute matter until the final bell rings on the last day of school. Cards and hand-written letters of gratitude will be saved in shoeboxes and reopened over the years, lasting reminders of what Henry Adams said about a teacher's effect on eternity. "He can never tell where his influence stops."
Come away with me to your favorite teacher’s classroom … what was that teacher’s name? What made that teacher so special? What was the one thing that teacher said or did that made you feel there was no better place for you to be from 8:00am to 3:00pm each day?
Maybe it was the teacher who knew you were good at art and entered your painting in a contest without telling you. It might have been the uncompromising, yet caring, teacher who pushed you to do all those extra problems even when you thought you had mastered the mathematics. Maybe it was the teacher who cut you some slack because your mother was in the hospital or the one whose mantra was that “You will never earn enough money to do a job you do not love. Follow your passion!” Perhaps it was the teacher who, decades later, is the reason why your mind might wander to the agriculture and the economy of the Antebellum South when you use a cotton ball.
Each of us has had this teacher. For me, it was my English teacher, Mr. Jones. When I first encountered him, it was at Antrim Grammar in Northern Ireland. He was a young man at the beginning of his career. Every day, he wore an ordinary tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows and a “Save the Otter” badge on the lapel. Naturally, he was well-read, but more importantly, he was accessible. Always the best reader in the room, be brought vividly to life Chaucer’s Pardoner and other questionable characters, knowing the bawdy exchanges that would most appeal to our adolescent sensibilities. With impeccable timing, he knew when we’d had our fill of Richard Church’s Over the Bridge or the Great Expectations of Charles Dickens. At such times, he would pause to wax philosophical or tell us to underscore in red those chunks of text we should learn by heart:
“That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”
For emphasis, he would add “Great stuff!” How we loved it when he indulged, with good humor, the odd red herring. In those seemingly random conversations, Mr. Jones revealed a little of his life beyond the classroom and his taste in music – Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Jackson Browne – thereby influencing my own. Then back to business, he would painstakingly guide us through the required reading for O-level and A-level English, the routines and rituals of his classroom elevating an ordinary space into a place of possibility. Every. Single Day.
Mr. Jones's professional journey led him to Friends School in Lisburn in 1996. By then, I had spent more than a decade as a teacher myself. It makes me smile to consider the possibility that, on the same day, Mr. Jones and I might have been introducing our respective students on either side of the Atlantic, to Robert Frost’s Birches. Imagine my delight to discover in the Friends Summer 2012 Newsletter a tribute to my favorite teacher:
Mr Terry Jones, Senior Teacher, joined the staff at Friends’ from Antrim Grammar School as Head of the English Department in 1996. At the heart of his teaching was an abiding love of literature, an endless enthusiasm for books and reading, that enriched and enlivened all in his classroom over the years. At the heart of his work in
school were kindness, warmth and good sense – qualities that drew the best from pupils and fostered the good relationships so important in our community. A man with many interests, those good relationships extended throughout the staff at Friends’ and Terry Jones was a most highly valued colleague and friend. Calm and steadfast in upholding what is really important in education, Terry Jones made an immense contribution and his example will be a pattern for those who worked with
him here in years to come. There is no doubt that retirement will be busy and fulfilling and Terry Jones has our thanks and very best wishes for the future
Like Mr. Jones, great teachers are passionately committed to the most important subject – their students. They understand that students enter a classroom sharing a basic need to feel safe, to learn, to matter.
One evening, while sorting through papers, de-cluttering and discarding, I found folded in four between a hand-made card and a letter of recommendation from my first principal, a letter from a former student. I am ashamed to say I do not remember the woman who took the time to explain in writing her decision to withdraw from my Introduction to World Literature class, nor do I recall how I received her letter. Had she turned it in with an assignment? I don't know. I don't even know her full name. It appears that in her effort to explain herself on just one side of the note-book paper, she had to tightly position in the bottom right hand corner her signature - diminutive and different from the great loops of flowing cursive that had preceded it. A first name, 'Carol,' but a surname that remains a mystery. By some strange twist that can only happen in real life, perhaps Carol will stumble upon this blog and find the letter she wrote thirteen years ago, then and forever a tribute to teaching:
Dear Ms. W.
I wanted to write you a note to tell you how very much I have enjoyed your class. You are a delight and a terrific teacher. We have just learned that my mom has cancer, and it is in the brain, lung, and bones. We don't have much time, and I need every minute I have to be with her. I remember you saying that your mom is your best friend - it is the same with me - and I hardly know how I can get through life without her.
I wanted you to know also, that because her eyesight has been going - and she has always been an avid reader (and all the zillions of stories she read to us . . . do you know of the poem, "You may have riches and gold - but I had a mother that read to me . . . "?) She has been so frustrated not being able to read - so I have been reading to her - I read her "My Oedipus Complex," and oh, how we giggled - I told her that I wish she could have heard you read it, with that slight, but wonderful Irish accent! So I was especially glad to have O'Connor's other story - "First Confession" that you handed out. We call them his "little boy stories" - and it has brought her smiles. The Oedipus Complex was especially wonderful, because my father was a pilot in the Army, and was in Korea and WWII so - she with 3 boys (and 2 girls) could certain relate to 'Daddy' coming home and the competition for her attention. Isn't it strange - I bet you don't think about the ways you touch other lives - but you have added something beautiful to ours, when we most needed it. I will in time retake this course - so I will be looking for YOUR class.
"Please read the letter that I wrote . . .":