Saturday, November 3, 2012

What Teachers Can Do

A version of this recently appeared in my high school alumni magazine.  I thought I would share it here.

Although I’ve often referred to my high school years as a period when I was waiting for my life to start, this makes it sound calm when it actually was a turbulent time.   My family was going through dramatic changes, and I was as well.  But, regardless of the emotional roil at home, or my after-school job, or among my friends, I had two havens: the classrooms of the English teacher, Klem, and the French teacher, Gregory.  Entering these, I felt safe.

Compassionate, learned, and funny, these teachers offered me something that I desperately needed although I didn’t know it at the time.  They treated me seriously, and they talked to me honestly.  When I said something thoughtful they considered it; when I said something ridiculous, they pointed it out.  They acted as if I was someone who would understand their love of books, culture, and art, and they validated my own love of reading.  They were some of the first people who talked with me about ideas rather than at me.

In Klem's class, I also wrote some of my first poems, and they were horrible (although I didn’t know that at the time either).  But he encouraged me.  He didn’t tell me they were great, and he didn’t tell me they were terrible.  But he made it clear that the effort itself was worthwhile.  I began to get a more realistic understanding of what it might mean to be a writer.  It would involve more than mastering grammar, or knowing “cakes are done; people are finished,” it would require the ability to shape one’s passion and emotions with discipline.

As for Gregory, stepping into his class was like stepping into a foreign country.  Not because he taught French, but because he loved art, artists, ideas, and beauty, and he insisted people could actively surround themselves with these.  Outside the school were McDonalds, Pizza Huts, and malls; in his room were Colette, Camus, and cathedrals.  Paradoxically, this small space revealed a larger perspective.  There was more for us than Fort Wayne, Allen County, and Indiana. There was Europe.  There was the past. There was a world of wonders and delights.

Both Gregory and Klem revealed possibilities to me.  And, they seemed to see what I could become rather than what I was (yet something else I needed).  They didn’t offer false encouragement or vapid cheerleading.  There are people who if you say that you want to be an astronaut or a space alien or a yeti will say, “Great.  Go for it!  You can be anything!”  This isn’t encouragement; it’s condescending head-patting.  And, it requires nothing of either involved.  In contrast, I worked hard for these two teachers (mostly), and they made me want to work hard (always).

Ronald Reagan once said, "Education is not the means of showing people how to get what they want.  Education is an exercise by means of which enough men, it is hoped, will learn to want what is worth having."  These two beautiful men helped me learn to want what is worth having.  I absolutely believe that thirty years later I am living a richer, fuller, life because of them. 

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