“True teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross; then, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create their own.”If I've learned anything in the last 22 years, it's how to embrace the sometimes terrifying notion of being myself. The next few weeks wrap my up time as a professional student, and barring some misguided jaunt into the world of further education, the first of May will bring the last of textbooks, notes, and tests.
That makes this the perfect time to reflect upon those years served under good teachers and bad. My education's not been one collective experience, but rather, a collection of small encounters with teachers and administrators who cared enough to do their part.
The life of a teacher must be frustrating. Theirs is a labor of love, and labor is the right word. They work tirelessly, forsaking the sleep and sanity that might come with another profession. More than that, they're in many ways investors, unable to see the fruits of their labors until many years have passed. Teachers polish diamonds for years on end, holding to the vision of potential within students that probably haven't earned that level of dedication. But the good teachers create classrooms that leave a permanent stamp. My experiences led me to appreciate teachers not for what they taught, but for what they were.
My first tangible memory of school takes me back to kindergarten and Mrs. Roop, a sterling woman whose classroom took young students deep into the jungle. She was a teacher who exhibited basket loads of what might be the most important quality for a teacher - patience. I had trouble tying my shoes as a young person, and I battled the demon of scowling perfectionism. I'd cry as a kid, and more than once I dedicated myself to the idea of a life spent wearing only Velcro shoes. But her patience set the course, and her gentle demeanor made the introduction to school significantly less scary for those is getting our feet wet.
I owe to Monica Milling some of my literary talent. She used well-placed threats - those involving hangings, toes, and the top of the ceiling - to dissuade her sixth grade students against combining the words "a" and "lot" into one word. It seems to me somewhat rare to remember a distinct detail of instruction from a class 15 years ago, but that must be the case for most of us who had Mrs. Milling.
Two teachers and one administrator stand out from the educational abyss that tends to be high school. I took years of Spanish under the direction of Linda Lockyer, whose passion for the profession made her unique among her peers. Mrs. Lockyer was subjected to the worst sort of high school torment, as we often made a mockery of the proceedings. I'd routinely answer her entirely legitimate questions with nonsensical retorts like "muy tengo" and "yo tengo zapatos azules." She made learning fun, filling her classroom with music. On a recent trip to Wisconsin, a high school friend recalled the lyrics of Te Recuerdo Amanda, a song often played on an almost-daily basis in her classroom. We read 100 Days of Solitude, and we cooked foodstuffs of Spanish and Hispanic origin. Her classroom was really a temple of learning, even if we were prone to desecration. But her efforts taught us more than just a language. For most of us, it was the first picture of another culture, and her class emphasized a certain appreciation and respect for that culture.
Any of my classmates that happen upon this article will know Kris Sinclair, the high-achieving physics and science professor who asked more of us than most of us were willing to give. He was and remains a teacher who inspired not through his words, but through his being. He'd bike to school each day, but only after completing a morning workout. He was the sort of person who would eat a dozen donuts every day because his body needed them for fuel. An Ironman competitor, he demanded much from himself. His demands extended onto his students. I was unprepared for a brand of instruction that demanded both hard work and critical thought, and Mr. Sinclair was unashamed of his unwillingness to compromise those requirements.
He's since moved on from high school teaching, a career move that's predictability was only matched by Willie Mays's move from AAA Minneapolis to the New York Giants. We knew at the time that he was bound for some level of greatness, and as it turned out, he's chased it with the sort of dedication that was foreseeable by those who attempted one of his homework assignments.
Mr. Sinclair forced us to dive deep into abilities that we did not know we had, and he impressed upon us the important truth that we could do much more than our self-imposed limits suggested.
Chris Carter served as the dean of students at my high school, and he was able to communicate the importance of education without saying a word. His presence alone put students on notice that something important was happening, and his professionalism served as an example for all to follow. He was tough, as deans can often be, but he had the sort of purpose that made learning seem like something that must be done.
For people like me, high school instruction stretches well beyond the classroom. It makes its way on the fields of clay and grass that we call home in the afternoon hours. One coach was more than a strategist; he was an educator and a motivator. His name is Casey Thiele, and he, too, has moved on. We won a football state championship under his direction when I was a freshman, and during that year, I took my share of abuse. I was less than five and a half feet, and I weighed around 150 pounds. My cache of toughness developed only with hits applied by ruthless running backs. That year was characterized by many tears, and at the end, it culminated in a large ring that signified to me the growth gained through struggle.
After playing my next season at a different school, I returned to Coach Thiele as a six-foot-one, 225 pound junior ready to combine my new size with the determination learned as a little guy. It was Coach Thiele who recognized my potential, and it was him who, before leaving that year, suggested that I wear number one. Like Mr. Sinclair, he was a teacher who was willing to nurture ability even when it hadn't appeared to others.
The contributions of these people have led me to where I am today - a month short of law school graduation, but still with so much more to learn. They prepared me to learn under such dedicated teachers as Craig Joyce and Seth Chandler, both experts in their respective fields of law. They engaged in me the ability to think for myself, which has come in handy in my dealings with professor David Dow, who I have written about at length on this site.
Because, really, it's not what you learn in those early years that matters. I could have learned Spanish through Rosetta Stone and I might have learned history from Wikipedia. More, it's the ways in which those dedicated teachers get their students to learn that they can learn. They unlocked in me an inquisitiveness that's led to a furthering of my own education that I'm sure will continue until I can no longer use a computer or pick up a book.
They are people who made sacrifices. Long nights and trying days mark the life of a teacher, and I can only think that they choose to go on with it because of the possibility, however minute, that they might make a difference. For those who I've been blessed to learn under, I'll say, "Job well done." Your contributions have been invaluable to me and many others, and your determined dedication has not gone unnoticed.