Anyone who knows me knows that I am fairly obsessed with Moby-Dick—the novel, not the whale—although I have plenty of whale memorabilia (junk my wife would probably call it) scattered around my office. This column, though, isn’t about Moby-Dick, per se, but about students and teachers.
There is a link though. Yesterday while I was working at my desk, a package arrived from a former student in my American Literature class many years ago. The package contained a raft of Moby-Dick related materials—a novel, a book of paintings, a script from a play, a poster, and a few other items—that he had been gathering for years. Needless to say, I was deeply touched. More touching, though, was his note sharing with me the profound effect the course had on him and the ways the stuff we discussed and read still lingers for him to this day.
Notes like that mean a great deal to teachers. For 41 years (one year longer than Ahab spent as a whaler), I have had the good fortune of being surrounded by teachers who touch the lives of students in profound ways. Just last week I was in Hollywood visiting with alumni, and they all had their stories of their favorite GDS teachers. “How’s Laura, Louise, John, Richard, Nooman, Charles, Katherine, Mayra,” they wanted to know. “Are they still teaching? Would you please, please say hello for me?”
One alumnus spoke about former Middle School teacher Clay Roberson, and how 20 years later, he still has every note he ever took in Clay’s class and how not a day goes by that he doesn’t put to good use something he learned in that class. His moral compass, he was willing to say, was shaped by Clay, and it is what guides him and made him the man he is. Now I suspect his parents had something to do with how this alumnus turned out, but that’s a given. What’s not a given is that all children will be blessed with a teacher who takes them seriously and who believes heart and soul that they are capable, that they are worthy, that they deserve to be heard, seen, and known.
As I have gotten older, I have become more and more convinced that all kids need that one adult in their lives—and I’m happy to see that teachers at GDS take this part of their calling so sincerely. Without that support, a kid can go astray. With it, they can survive a great deal.
Like a good parent, good teachers aren’t particularly indulgent; they don’t give away A’s and B’s like candy; they are fair; they are critical; they hold kids accountable. They also, though, remember something about their own childhood. They remember being vulnerable, occasionally fragile; they remember that feeling when they took a risk, when they tried hard to get something right and didn’t quite succeed. They are aware that not every student in their classroom necessarily loves—or feels that they are particularly good at—English, math, or French. They know though, with all their heart, that every student is good at something and cares deeply about something; knowing that gives the teacher a way to reach their students. A student may claim that he hates physics and doesn’t see the point, but if that same kid happens to love baseball, and the teacher knows that (and he should), then there’s a ready connection to be formed, for baseball is physics in action.
Teachers don’t teach for the money, although as Ishmael rightly points out, “there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid.” Mostly, they do it for love: love of children, love of their subject, and love for the world. As I remind students when we are studying tragedy, despite the catastrophe that always unfolds, tragedy presumes a world in which heroism is possible. In a shifting and shifty world, the teacher who gives his or her all looks pretty heroic to me.