Sunday, June 23, 2019

2019.06.23 Teachers—And Then Some

One of the most treasured and, yes, loving, professions is that of being a teacher. Teachers are all over the place, but I’m thinking of classroom teachers. I remember the ones who shaped my life by knowing the shape of my life before I knew it.

How, for example, could my high school English teacher have known when he assigned year-end senior projects that the best assignment for me would be Charles Dickens? He knew before I did that I leaned toward compassion and justice for underdogs. He knew that I swooned over big spiritual Scrooge-like transformations. And he knew I had a penchant for good words, preferably big unmanageable ones, and a longing to be found, or at least noticed.

My favorite Dickens novel was Bleak House. Honestly, I don’t remember much of it except that it was about a young girl who wrote letters to an older man who took great care responding to the girl’s missives. Thus she grew to love herself. The relationship wasn’t lascivious but avuncular. I remember it felt holy to me. Here’s a quote: “There were two classes of charitable people: one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all.” 

No, I did not remember those exact words. I looked them up. They felt just like something that would have stuck with me, made me laugh, and justify some of my own supercilious attitudes towards my elders. One of those elders must have gotten my drift, or been prodded by my mother, because, yearly for years, she gave me a bound-in-leather, gold-leaf, edition of a Dickens novel until I had the whole set. I hope my son Rob still has them—not for the money’s worth but for the soul’s worth.

A grandson, fourteen, recently responded to my typically-adult-inanity: What’s your favorite subject? He said something like: “Last year it was History but this year it’s English.” Why? Because last year’s English teacher was “no good.” The teacher makes the subject matter live. It’s an art.

My youngest son John is a teacher. He chose his profession, inspired by a teacher who wasn’t even his teacher but a special presenter in one of his college classes. The topic was educational advising, or how to teach teachers.  John thought: “I’d like to do that.” After the presentation he went to talk to the presenter, who was in a hurry and brushed off  John’s enthusiasm—a cardinal sin, I’d say. Nevertheless, even a sin can plant a seed. John pursued education instead of following his brother and dad into a business career. He taught in a racially segregated elementary public school in Florida. Anti-segregation laws soon passed, so his school had to integrate—admit more white children. The experience was formative for John, professionally and spiritually. Perhaps it was “Dickensian.”

I think this is how the Spirit works—not telling us what precisely to do but setting a small fire under our own desires.  I pursued, not Dickens, but writing with a religious, if sometimes sarcastic, bent. John returned to Connecticut, taught fifth grade, got his master's degree, and now heads up the library in an elementary school, where, you could say, he teaches teachers or at least ignites their impulses—known and unknown.  

Just a few days ago John was in an ice cream shop. The teenager behind the counter looked familiar. The boy smiled. John said: “I think I know you.” The boy said: “Mr. Brakeman?” John remembered instantly this young fifth grader, Timmy, I’ll call him. He had been a history buff with a special interest in American history. John had encouraged his interest and found books to fan the embers. Timmy told John he was going to college next year and planned to major in history. “Thanks for the education, Mr. Brakeman. The ice cream’s on me.” What better praise can there be?

It excites me when all that praise and glory we blast off on regularly in church escapes into the world we foolishly call secular, as if there were really a difference. If only we would notice. Pay attention to the small stuff that’s not supposed to happen but does.

Poet Brian Doyle wrote about another fifth-grader. May this poem serve to bless all teachers everywhere who teach knowledge—and knowing.

A Poem for Literature Teacher Beth
Morgan of Lassiter High in Georgia

Maybe you will think this is a tiny thing
But I do not think it’s a little thing when
A student asks me if I could possibly jot
A poem for his absolute favorite teacher
Because he wants to give her an odd gift
Of a poem by a writer she enjoys and he,
The student, says he knows this is crazy,
But he really admires this teacher, so he,
The writer, touched by the student’s guts
And how fine the teacher must be to jazz
 A student like that, says sure, and he sits
Down one morning to scribble the poem,
And here it is, but this poem, you notice,
Is a poem about the student being moved
By a teacher, and the teacher being zesty
And honest and real and so passionate as
To stories that he, the student, will never
Forget the teacher. That is the best poem.