I’ve both read and heard how today has been designated as Teacher Appreciation Day across the U.S. and my morning certainly included a fitting part of that.
My son was among the local high school seniors honored by the Oconee County (GA) Rotary Club as Student of the Semester for their respective schools. A key part of the proceedings was the selection and introduction by the students of a teacher that had made a significant impact on their lives.
I can vouch without reservation for the deep respect my son has for his selected teacher Alan Hickerson, as well as for the positive influence that he has been. Beyond the material in English classes and beyond the skills that were enhanced by their work together in Mock Trial preparation and competition, the value of another lesson learned in those endeavors might be the most enduring. The opportunity to learn, as Will puts it “to make myself better”, that comes with doing tasks that are difficult and that require a lot of digging to meet expectations. That’s something that will last him a lifetime, both the process as well as the insight that “hard” doesn’t mean “bad”. If anything, it’s often the opposite.
All of this combines to have me thinking specifically about some of the teachers that I encountered along the way. It’s a subject that’s crossed my mind on several occasions in recent months, one that I’ve been meaning to address in fact. Apparently one of the lessons I didn’t quite master was avoiding procrastination, no matter how good my intentions might be.
A fair number of my readers will know some, if not all, of the teachers that I’m going to name. For those who don’t, I both hope and suspect that you will at least recognize some of the traits and influences that I want to mention.
Some of these teachers I lost track of long ago, others I’m lucky to remain in contact with electronically to this day. Regardless, their influence remains a part of me. They deserve credit for whatever I may have learned, just leave the blame for any inadequate application of those lessons on me. It is also not an exhaustive list, please accept in advance my apologies to any errors of omission.
I distinctly recall with great fondness one of my fifth grade teachers, Sandra Gaines. I was, well, a different sort of child/student. She was the first teacher that I consciously felt not only respected that but also actively tried to engage it. Some of that awareness may simply be an increased maturity on my part but to me it felt different. That instead of being a frustrating — and Lord KNOWS I had to be a nightmare for virtually anyone to have in a classroom — round peg in a square hole, she accepted me as me and tried to leave room for round to be round. And on days I was more of a hexagon she tried to work with that too. How could I ever forget that? It was something I needed even more than I could realize at the time.
Others who stand out particularly from my elementary years were more notable for the examples that they provided than for any specific classroom experience. A more dedicated & hard working teacher could not be found than Luke Darby, nor a more dignified person than Leila Brown, nor a more giving heart than Willie Mae Weaver. In some cases it took well into adulthood to be able to quantify what made those people stand out but even as a child you knew they were special.
Onward to high school and I think that, while still immature, our increased understanding of people and actions tends to make more interactions stand out.
While I will never be someone that professes any sort of great fondness for school days, I can easily recall a number of very positive influences.
Gary Dickinson used humor to make his point with me frequently, effective in at least making me aware of some of my tendencies no matter how poorly I may have managed to curb them. But his approach made the direction a lot easier to take, and a lot more palatable.
Ron Hunter was one of the first teachers, or adults period for that matter, to look me dead in the eye and say something privately in a very straight forward manner. That remains memorable to me as one of the first times anyone ever treated me as a young adult to communicate WITH rather than a child to simply e spoken TO.
Bob Bradley changed forever my view of listening to someone read. That sounds so simple, but for a voracious reader that truly hated being read to, that was a remarkable feat. In doing so he gave me a previously non-existent appreciation for Southern writers in particular, he taught me the power of the interpretation of words, the impact of words heard rather than seen. Considering the number of years that I would spend in broadcasting, I’d say those were some pretty impactful lessons, and ones that had very real world application.
I never had Lamar Turner as a teacher in a classroom but to this day I’ve seen no more enjoyable example of someone channeling their passion into a task. To watch him coach basketball, practices even moreso than games perhaps, was one of the true delights of my school years. With that came a subtle lesson that shaped me for the rest of my life, that it’s okay to be passionate about something, to be unafraid and unabashed in seeking improvement and success, and how passion combined with effort is a powerful force.
Sandra Payne provided a wonderful example of the importance of balance. I left her classes with a better understanding — however imperfect my application of that knowledge was — of the concept of “a time to work and a time to have fun”. I’ve seen few people in any field who ever managed that juggling act better. I’m not very good at that particular skill, so that probably enhances my appreciation of someone so gifted in that regard.
Roy Cowart provided one of the most memorable experiences of my entire life. Granted, there’s probably a lot of his former students who could say the same thing, with no shortage of them sweating bullets at the memory (especially in a chalk board was involved). Suffice to say that I was almost as far from a model student as he had to deal with, and that our classroom relationship was not ideal (translation: I was a stubborn lost ball in high weeds, demotivated, and reasonably content to remain that way). It was well after our classroom encounters that he approached me about a relatively small matter that I might be able to be helpful to him with. I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt more strongly not just the impact of being treated with respect but of feeling worthy of respect in some way. I don’t know that I could ever put that feeling into words well enough to do it justice but it’s a memory that I’ve gone back to probably more than any other in my entire K-12 experiences.
One other teacher that I cannot fail to mention here is one that I never personally had in a classroom. My direct interactions with Coach Don Enis were relatively limited compared to many of my peers but I can think of no finer example of someone impacting so many people so deeply and in so many positive ways. It requires hindsight to really appreciate the importance of someone who had such profound & positive influence on your peers but with the benefit of (hopefully) time-earned wisdom, I now appreciate a great deal the way he improved the world I interacted with by making so many people be better than they would have been without him.
This isn’t the first time I’ve though about any of these teachers, nor the value they added to my life beyond mere subject matter. And in those thoughts I’ve wondered more than once how many of them would even remember the situations that I’ll never forget. I’ve wondered whether they realized at the time how much of an impact they were having, that it would stick with me more than three decades later. My guess is that some will, some almost certainly won’t, but maybe that’s a great way to illustrate one of the most important things I hope every teacher manages to keep somewhere in mind: you don’t always know when you’re giving a student something they will carry forever.
I’ve also done a lousy job of making sure these influences knew what I’d gained from them, from the lessons they taught or simply the people they were. A lot of these stories are things that I’ve tried to express only a few times and to a pretty select number of people. Gratitude is something that human beings aren’t always great at expressing, but I hope no teacher ever entirely mistakes its absence with a lack of appreciation.
Sometimes the beneficiaries just haven’t figured out a way to say thank you.