There is an ancient story of an old man who looked too feeble to be planting a tree, but, nonetheless, he planted a carob tree, which takes decades to produce fruit. It was pointed out that he would never live to see the literal fruits of his labor. He replied, “When I came into this world, there were already fully-grown carob trees; as my forefathers planted these for me so I too plant these for my children.”
I have been thinking a lot about teachers, lately. As recently as tonight, when we attended the last elementary “Back to School Night” for our oldest son, I have been thinking about how frustrating it must be for teachers to see how students “turn out.” It has always been easy for me to see teachers as heroes. My mother and sister were both elementary school teachers, and I have been fortunate in my life to have served as a teacher in various capacities, but never in a grammar school. I remember every single teacher I have ever had, and each had a profound impact on me.
This past weekend, I watched an extraordinary documentary called “Brooklyn Castle,” a film which follows the travails of poor middle school students at IS 318 who compete in chess championships all over the country. Following the Great Recession and budget cuts, we see how important their growth is to their teachers and administrators. The wonderful thing about a documentary, especially one as acclaimed as this one, is that we can look up online how these students “turned out.”
But most of us ordinary Americans don’t show up on our teachers’ radars once our 12 grades are up. Many of my teachers have already passed away, and I never got the chance to tell them how good I had it. I only had three truly terrible teachers, and I will never forget them, either. But most of them were imperfectly wonderful. It wasn’t just Mrs. Lynn and her incubator full of chickens that pooped all over my basement, or Mr. Storz who was not as scary as he seemed and let me buy Civil War books with “Storz Slips,” or Mrs. Weinberg and her insistence that I would love “The Dragonriders of Pern.” It was all of them, who encouraged us to become our best selves. Mr. McCruden, my one-time math teacher, who coached me in track through the wonder years (awkward years) of junior high. And Mr. and Mrs. Aversanotaught us about love and literature. They showed us better than any university professor how to cut through to the sweet marrow of story and character and wordcraft, both in the classroom and outside, with Hills East’s (I believe) still-thriving Pegasus Literary Magazine, where we learned the art of compassionate critique of art and literature. And appreciation. To get to our best selves. That repeated exposure to the development of critical thinking and human understanding is the gift of a lifetime.
Tonight, I got the opportunity to tell my son’s 5th grade teacher that her father--a 3rd grade teacher--was my best friend’s all-time favorite teacher. In fact, her father’s joy in sharing the mysteries of science led my best friend to become an engineer. She beamed and told me she couldn’t wait to tell him.