Affecting eternity

Stop and think of your favorite teacher. Are you doing it? If you’re like me, you’ll have trouble coming up with just one. Some of the most wonderful and memorable people in my life have been educators, and although Teacher Appreciation Week is still a long way off (May 3–7, in case you’re wondering), the fact that today is a Monday during one of the most difficult parts of the academic year prompts me to spend a little time appreciating them right now.

Beginning with our parents (our first and best educators), all of us benefit from the instruction of a number of teachers during the early years of our life. Those of use who attend school from kindergarten through college will have (or have had) a rough average of nearly 100 teachers by the time we enter adult life, and even if only a handful of them are truly memorable, we’re very blessed by them indeed. Looking across old yearbooks and transcripts, I can remember all of my teachers when I see their names—and what a bunch of passionate, dedicated people they were!

I recall my kindergarten teacher, who was kind and patient and soft and welcoming, and who made the transition away from home about as cheery as possible. I remember her showing us how to make autumn paintings with sliced apples, and how to use chopsticks (with minimal success), and how she didn’t laugh at me when I volunteered to write the letter “A” on the board and then proceeded to copy (to the best of my memory) the flowing Disney-style “A” seen in the title of Aladdin, which had just come out that year.

I recall my second grade teacher, who created an entire rainforest in the center of the classroom and taught us (among other things) all about poison dart frogs.

I recall my fourth grade teacher, who held me after class until I could make my cursive ‘r’ properly. I despised him for it then, but now I always think of him fondly whenever anyone compliments me on my handwriting.

I had a music teacher who was possibly the first person in my life to make me feel like an adult, and a history teacher who would let me argue for points on tests if I thought that my answer was better. (No wonder I ended up going to law school…) When I went away to college, she jokingly reminded me that I would never have a better history teacher—and she was right.

In eighth grade, my teacher taught us such memorable rules for grammar that I used them myself when teaching Korean students in Los Angeles years later. He always told us that “language was the barbels of the mind,” which may explain why I ultimately learned three new ones. His dress was (and is) always as impeccable as his mood: super-deluxe!

In high school, I had too many wonderful teachers to count, and I still keep in touch with several of them:

  • My two-time biology teacher was more excited about her subject than perhaps any other teacher I’ve seen—to the point that I was able to get jazzed up about mitosis, too. (Seriously, the woman wrote Christmas carols about it.)
  • My Spanish teachers inspired in me the love of languages other than my own.
  • My math teachers managed to generate interest in the cold world of numbers, and were some of the most forgiving instructors in the least forgiving subject out there. (And I secretly think my pre-calc teacher named his son after me.)
  • My truly unforgettable teachers in the English department spent a lot of time talking to me about life and its difficulties and what I wanted and even girls, and they made it possible for me to experience my first ever trip overseas. Three in particular made an incredible difference in my life, and I still call them up when I’m home. We go by first names now, which is still a bit strange. We go out. I would invite them to my wedding. They’re amazing people, and I love them because they helped teach me so much more than what was in the book.

They helped teach me who I was.

Then came college, which presents a serious threat to my word limit: an Italian professor who practically became my mother away from home, another Italian teacher who later hosted me at her place in Florence and took me out for boar, a literature professor who showed me sides of books I didn’t know existed and still remains a good friend, a heaven-sent thesis adviser who showed me that I really could write, a voice teacher who showed me that I really could sing, an incredibly memorable Socratic philosopher who showed me that I still had so much left to learn…

They have all contributed to a little piece of my consciousness—my understanding of this world and my place within it.

I have long had a secret wish to track them all down and invite them to a lavish, elegant dinner where I can introduce them to one another and thank them all for their hard work. And, knowing my propensity for doing things big, I wouldn’t be surprised if someday I do just that…

But for now, I can write, and in writing I hope to praise the truly beautiful work performed by all those who contribute to the life of the mind.

In case you didn’t realize, a teacher’s work is extraordinarily difficult—at least, if she wants to be any good. One of my favorite quotes about teachers is one that I read in an article comparing the field of education to other professions:

If a doctor, lawyer, or dentist had 40 people in his office at one time, all of whom had different needs, and some of whom didn’t want to be there and were causing trouble, and the doctor, lawyer, or dentist, without assistance, had to treat them all with professional excellence for nine months, then he might have some conception of the classroom teacher’s job.
—Donald D. Quinn

When you think about it, we ask an awful lot of our teachers. For starters, we ask them to keep an eye on our kids all day—and let’s face it: that’s something that none of us wants to do. On top of that, we expect them to send our kids back to us a little bit smarter than they were when they went away. We expect them to be patient with behavior but to push for results. We expect them not to get sick when our kids are coughing and sneezing all over them. We expect them to teach our students things that we can’t, answer questions to which we don’t know the answers, plan for a year when we can hardly plan for tomorrow, and fall in love with our children only to let them go again nine months later. We expect the world.

And they give it to us, year after year.

God bless the teachers! We don’t pay them nearly enough… but that’s not why they’re doing it. We don’t communicate to them how grateful we are, if we even remember to be grateful. But that’s not why they’re doing it, either.

They’re doing it for the future—yours, and mine, and all of ours. They believe (and rightly so) that tomorrow will be better if we educate today. As Henry Brooks Adams put it, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

Today is a Monday during one of the most difficult times of the school year. The winter holidays are behind us. Spring break is still several weeks away. If you’re feeling tired, you can bet that your teachers are, too. So if you see one today, say thank you—and tell her why.

If you’re no longer in school, consider contacting a favorite teacher and telling her how much she meant (and means) to you. Tell her something she taught you. Tell her how you’re using it now.

And if you’re a teacher yourself, then my sincere gratitude and love go out to you.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Affecting eternity

  1. sbartsch

    Thanks, James . You have made along day , new again!

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