And We All Remember Teachers We Have Had
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
It’s amazing to realize the value or detriment of the words and feelings we convey to others, especially children. To the more hardened among us perhaps the point is lost, yet seeing one’s self through the eyes of another and taking that to heart is nevertheless a natural human characteristic.
All of us should know that as children certain episodes seared into our psyches helped shape the adults we have become. You most certainly have your recollections; here’s one of mine.
In the seventh grade, I turned in a homework assignment, one of many that year and the following that flowed from a teacher’s command that each student write a descriptive paragraph. I remember those words, write a descriptive paragraph, because doing so was both adventurous and daunting. The question that came to mind—then and now—was write a descriptive paragraph about what? Yet Mrs. Williams’ instruction, and that of subsequent teachers giving the same assignment, was no more specific than that.
Unfortunately, I found at that particular time that I had nothing to write about, not due to mental laziness or apathy, I simply drew a blank. So I wrote about what was on my mind at the moment, that I was trying to fulfill my assignment but had nothing to say, an early onset of the malady they call writers block (and if you’ve read Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake, his last novel before he died, which he confessed was the product of the same mental infirmity, you are familiar with the unsatisfying tone resulting from this condition).
I thought at the time though that my idea was clever, but as it turned out Mrs. Williams was not amused, and subsequently I suffer-ed the indignity of her criticism penned in red ink across the top of my paper (those were the days when criticism was considered helpful and necessary, rather than damaging to a child’s self esteem).
Mrs. Williams’ comment, accompanied by her stern glare as she handed me back my paper, went something like this: Every year I get an essay from a student who writes about the difficulty he is having writing an essay. Such attempts are neither clever nor interesting, in fact they bore me, and your work bores me too, and therefore I am disappointed in you. You seem, though, to have some ability with vocabulary and sentence structure. Why not become a real writer, one who persuades with words using the inevitability of his logic joined to the convictions of his heart—a master stylist.
At the tender age of eleven, I was stunned (and yes her note was as mature as it now sounds on this page), but I also found myself thinking a lot about her criticism. I had been dressed down for childishness, and presented an adult challenge. I hadn’t realized the stakes were as high as Mrs. Williams made them out to be, but I can tell you that her frank criticism, her insistence that I write like a man, stayed with me for a lifetime. I even recall the dash before her last three words, a device I use to this day, probably too often, but which I can’t seem to resist. And though I surely have not risen to the level of mastery she extolled, I can say with certainty that from that point on when I took pen to paper I made sure I had something to say.
Valid criticism then, coupled with encouragement, is a powerful thing, especially to an eleven-year old boy suddenly immersed in a demanding social and academic envi-ronment (I had been thrust into an exceptional school, one that took its mission seriously, a large part of which was teaching children how to write and think, even as it had 200 years prior to my enrollment), yet the power of words imparted to others holds true across all age groups, for everyone. And so there’s a moral to this story.
We need not all be Mrs. Williamses, drawing stark choices and leveling dramatic alternatives and criticism upon those we meet or who are in our care—on the job, in the classroom, on the street. But consider what we can do through the power of judicious speech and emotion— forces as powerful as any we have at our command. And what if we decided to use those forces to bring out the best in ourselves and others? Wouldn’t we then be creating a chain reaction that, to one degree or another, changes the world for the better?
If doing so, it’s important to recognize not only what others do, and their potential, but who they are, their essential nature, seeing them in a way that affirms them as genuine human beings, and at the right moment pointing the way or perhaps putting things in perspective by offering an honest observation, one shaped by insight and tempered with understanding.
We are all teachers, as well as students, wearing various hats in the course of a lifetime, even a single day. It’s important to know, though, when you are one and not the other, keeping your eyes and ears open for an opportunity to offer the right words at the right time (or to receive them), and this is all the more important in the life of a child.
If you think about it, given the role teachers play, and we are all teachers, this is probably the most powerful and lasting influence in life any of us can have.