I recently came across a social media post about National Thank a Teacher Day. I googled this & found that the actual day was back in June but any day is a good day to thank a teacher seeing as it is an underpaid, overworked profession that is often not given the proper appreciation it deserves. In any case, it set me to thinking about all the many teachers who have made profound impacts on my life over the years. Obviously I learned a lot from many different teachers down the line but when I sat down to purposely think of specific conversations that have stayed in my mind over the years, I was somewhat surprised at what came to mind. All of the conversations that came to mind were not about any standard school subject- rather they were about life in general. But those are the conversations that have stuck with me the most. Seeing as teachers have undoubtedly experienced some of the greatest- if not the greatest- challenges of their careers over the past few years, now seems like a good time to reflect on those teachers who left an indelible mark on my own life.
I’m going to attempt to go in order so I’ll start with one of my third grade teachers who handled our school’s Advanced Learning Program. One day she asked us about our future career plans. I spouted out with what I thought at the time was a grand idea- I wanted to be a professional figure skater. I’ll never forget the disappointment I felt when her response was something along the lines of “How are you going to make that happen? You’re already past the age at which most of these people start skating. There are no skating rinks around here. Maybe you need to think about something more practical.” Inside I was seething, largely because I knew she was right, because my fantasy was dissolving right there in front of me in face of the pure hard facts of life. However, even as a kid, it didn’t take me long to realize that, while initially painful, this teacher actually did me a tremendous favor because her words spurned me to think about other careers that might be just as fascinating but actually doable. She also taught me that sometimes the truth hurts but we need to face it anyway. And for that I will always be grateful.
In sixth grade I had a history teacher who initially terrified me because she was known to be very strict & generally the sort who did not tolerate any nonsense. I was a complete “goody two shoes” so why I was worried I’ll never know. Anyway, in the course of that history class, perhaps when we were learning about the Holocaust, I remember her telling us that things were always harder for women. Now I was incredibly naïve at the time & I remember sitting there thinking “I’m not so sure about that.” Deep down I knew even then that she was probably right, but of course being young & optimistic I didn’t want to believe it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve cast my mind back to that class countless times & thought how right she was. Now I am not one of these women who spends every day whining about how terrible my life is & how much easier things would be if I were male. What an incredible waste of time that would be! But I’ve lived long enough now to know that this is still very much a “man’s world” in some ways & there are definitely certain times & situations in which I’d be very happy to change my chromosomes, at least for a little while. When I’ve read articles about how women have borne the brunt of a lot of Covid-related challenges, I’m always reminded of that conversation & think to myself “She was right all along.” On a rather different note, this teacher also taught me that just because someone has a bit of a “severe” demeanor does not mean that they aren’t at heart a very kind & caring individual.
Throughout all of middle school I was lucky enough to have the same English teacher every year who was one of the most amazing teachers I’ve ever known. There was something so incredibly human about her & how she approached her students. She saw us as more than pupils to be tested, that’s for sure, but even more than that she saw us as the budding adults that we were, whether WE realized it or not. I do not for the life of me remember the circumstances that prompted this conversation but I will never forget the day that she told me that there was a place in the world for “sensitive souls” like mine. She told me that because I was so sensitive I would experience both the highs/joys of life as well as the lows/sorrows of life in ways that others might never understand. Furthermore she told me that while this may feel like a burden at times it is also a blessing & can be a tremendous way to help others in need. As a somewhat shy teenager who was incredibly self-conscious & often felt lonely at school, these were words that wrapped me in comfort during my hardest moments. I’ve never forgotten them & over the years I’ve often had cause to reflect on how right she was.
In ninth grade (& twelfth grade) I had a science teacher whose motto was “Life’s not fair. I’m not nice. Get used to it.” Or maybe the last line was “Get over it.” Either way, the point remains the same. He might sound mean based solely on this quote but in reality he was a very decent person- he just expected his students to actually work & not just skate along & get good grades simply for existing. I for one loved his class & thought he was hilarious. In any case, that quote has stuck with me over the years & I am always reminded of it when I find myself getting torn up over the unfairness of life. I don’t think he was trying to tell us that we shouldn’t strive to make life more fair, but rather that we shouldn’t expend our energy moping about unfair situations instead of actually DOING something about them or finding a way to handle them even if we can’t change them. I will also confess that I have pulled this quote on my own child a time or two. Ha!
In tenth grade (& twelfth grade) I had a history teacher who was excellent for many reasons but the conversations I remember the most had nothing to do with history & everything to do with the future. And these conversations were not directed at me at all. It might have been career day during spirit week but in any case I’ll never forget the day this teacher asked a male classmate what his career plans were. The student stated that he wanted to be an NFL player. The teacher responded by calmly asking “What are you doing now to make that happen? Do you play on our school’s football team?” As it turned out the student was doing virtually nothing to make his dream come true- if I remember rightly he wasn’t even on the school football team. What I’ve always admired about this teacher is he did not use this situation to make fun of this student for having an unrealistic dream that he wasn’t actually working toward- rather he used this as a way to show us that our choices have consequences & that we have to actually do the work to chase our dreams. We can’t just wait around expecting miracles to happen. I also remember another discussion this teacher had with a female student who mentioned that her parents were very adamant with her that once she graduated she was on her own. She would have to support herself financially & that was all there was to it. Again, this teacher responded by calmly asking the student “What are you doing NOW to ensure that you will be ok after graduation? What plans do you have?” I’ll never forget that conversation for several reasons, one of which was that it made me realize that not everyone had parents who were as supportive as mine. I suppose I had known that on some level for a long time but that conversation made it all the more clear.
In ninth & eleventh grades I had another history teacher who left indelible marks on my mind. I wish I could think of very specific conversations we had but I just can’t. I think there were simply too many of them, especially in his eleventh grade American history course. This teacher was a bit of a former hippie (legitimately) who- at least in my view- was far more liberal & far less religious than the average person, or even the average teacher, in our small town. Throughout his class he challenged me in many ways about so many things I had been taught growing up, about so many pre-conceived notions I had about life. It was incredibly eye-opening & served in large part to make me the person I am today. One could say the wheels of my mind started turning in new motion largely thanks to his classes- even if I couldn’t or didn’t fully commit to some of those new ideas for a few more years.
The exact same thing could be said for my twelfth grade English teacher. Additionally, I literally read books differently now because of her. During her class I started highlighting or underlining important quotes in books so that I could use them to write papers, but all these years later I still find myself doing the same thing just so I can savor my favorite passages again some day.
There are so many more teachers I could mention but I’m trying to write more of an essay & less of a novel here, so I think I’ll end this by simply saying thank you to all the many wonderful teachers I’ve had over the years. I might have grown up in a “backwards” small town, in some people’s view, but there was certainly no dearth of excellent teachers there. And for that I will always be grateful.
By the way, I’d love to hear from my readers about teachers who strongly impacted your lives. Any of my hometown folks have stories to share about some of these same teachers? I bet y’all do. I’d love to hear them.