Tag Archives: back to school

Teachers: Perpetual Sowers of an Unseen Harvest

6 Sep

Every September I get this colossal sense of wonder and gratitude regarding the men and women to whom we’ve entrusted the minds and dreams of our children. Where would we be without these wonderful people who can explain concepts to our children that, let’s face it, we don’t understand ourselves? Some of the concepts that elude me include the binary code, why Pluto isn’t a planet, and, if atoms are made up of 99.9% empty space, how can we touch things? And the greatest mystery of all: math.

Teachers Rock.

Have you stopped to think about this lately? They have the power to inspire, crush, see, ignore, challenge, nurture, and motivate our children, and they are the ones who actually teach our children what they need to know to make it to the next milestone and beyond. That’s a power we shouldn’t take lightly, but pray about and praise when we find the ones with that extra something. I’m excited to think that someone my son has just met may be the person he looks back on with gratitude, the one who first recognized his gift and planted those first seeds of encouragement that turned into a career.

Yes, that teacher will always be special, the way I still remember Mr. DeRobbio handing my essay back to me in the 9th grade and saying, “You might want to consider becoming a writer.” But he alone didn’t bring me to this place. It took years of passionate, patient, sorely overworked and underpaid teachers, each adding seeds of wisdom and encouragement to the pot to make a whole me. And behind the scenes were hundreds of administrators and support staff collecting data, answering phones, shelving books, fixing lunches, and mopping floors to ensure we had a healthy, safe, and nourishing environment for learning. (I’m married to a man we all call The Lunchroom Lady, so he gets props too!)

Consider the blog page you’re reading right now. The very fact that I can string 900 words together for you to and you can actually read a 900-word blog (I know, I know, you just look at the pictures, but you could if you wanted to) says we had some pretty good teachers. Mr. DeRobbio not only encouraged even my weirdest writing in high school (I’ve read some recently and wondered what he could possibly have been thinking), but he also introduced me to that beautiful creature: the short story, and he led me to write for the school paper. The rest is history.

But it doesn’t stop there. I’m able to set the words on the page thanks to ten months in Mrs. Mahoney’s Typing 101 class, where we sat in rows before our enormous gray Smith-Corona Super Sterlings chanting “A S D F Semi L K J!” (Sure, kids today can two-thumb the Gettysburg Address in the time it took me to slide the carriage return, but at least I know what the MR key does. . . did. . . whatever.)

And speaking of the Gettysburg Address, I wouldn’t have been able to slide that snarkism in there were it not for Mr. Delgado, my history teacher (whose funky wrap-around comb-over and snow-drift dandruff shoulders are hauntingly unforgettable). Mr. D managed to make the American Revolution and Civil War come alive for me, and give me an appreciation for back story, and his sense of humor taught me that writing needn’t be boring.

Even my math and science teachers contributed. (Strange, but I cannot remember the names of any of my math or science teachers. Is that a writer’s subliminal rebellion?) These people whose ways are alien to me taught other people enough about math and coding to hold this webpage together without duct tape, and enough about circuits, components, electricity, batteries, and that mysterious binary code to make computers, thereby eliminating the need for an MR key. They inspired the kinds of imaginations that made search engines work so you can find me, and some mystical network of tubing under the oceans that keeps the lines of communication humming, and don’t even get me started on touch-screen technology, because I’m already way over my head here. All of this so I can entertain you for ten minutes once a week and hopefully inspire you to read my books.

Seagul in the mist

They teach us to fly, but know not where we land…

Fascinating, don’t you think? But I’d like you to consider something else all those wonderful people have in common: Most teachers share your hopes and dreams for your children, yet never find out whether those dreams were realized. They’ve sown thousands of seeds over the years, and they may have set hundreds of young men and women on right paths, but how many of their former students ever report back?

I contacted Mr. DeRobbio back in 1993 when the Marine Corps named me Print Journalist of the Year, and I thanked him for making it possible. He was thrilled to learn that I not only wrote for a living but had achieved a measure of success, and he struck up a regular correspondence, even coming to Virginia to visit me once. When he passed away a few years ago, I could grieve without regretting that he never knew what his passion had produced in at least one of his students.

Is there a teacher in your past who deserves a thank-you note? I challenge you to get in touch if you still can, and congratulate that person on a job well done, because you turned out GREAT!

Even if it’s a math teacher.

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Let my teaching fall like rain and my words descend like dew, like showers on new grass, like abundant rain on tender plants. –Deuteronomy 32:2

If you can read this, thank a teacher

2 Sep

I picked up my youngest Monday after his first day of the 11th grade, and, after much grilling about his day, managed to penetrate the layer of, “It was okay,” down to a second layer, which was, “We didn’t do much,” to uncover that hidden bit of substance. He turned to me and said—

(Hold on. I need a moment. Still reeling over the phrase, “First day of the 11th grade.” How the heck did that happen? Deep breath…Okay, I think I can continue.)

—So he turned to me and said, “I like all my teachers.”

And just like that, I knew what I have to write this week. Imagine, all over the country teachers are welcoming a fresh batch of potential rocket scientists and brain surgeons and truck drivers and dot-com entrepreneurs and, yes, teachers. (Regrettably, with those students come attitudes of belligerence and self-righteousness—pointing the blame at teachers for shortcomings that are their own faults. Yes, I’m talking about parents, but I digress.)

So I’m thinking this is the perfect week to applaud the teachers. Teachers are amazing. Theirs is the only profession I know where the employees spend their own money to buy office supplies and posters and story books and anything else that might reach that one child who hasn’t completely taken in a particular lesson. They take work home because their in-school hours are never enough. They offer to stay late to work one-on-one, particularly in the case of high school students, because some topics are difficult to grasp. They take lunch room duty, playground duty, hall monitor duty, and the occasional janitorial duty. They attend school plays, sporting events, and band concerts (that last deserves more than a mere mention—have you ever had to sit through a 5th grade performance? I’ll just say this…clarinets.)

Mr. DeRobbio was my English teacher in the 9th, 11th, and 12th grades. He was also my creative writing teacher, and one of the first people in my life to suggest I should consider writing as a vocation. I could never thank him enough for his patience, his encouragement, and the genuine interest he took in my work. Mr. D. was ancient when I attended school in the 70s, so I’m not even sure he’s still with us, but I’ll hunt him down in Heaven, for sure.

My two boys are 14 years apart, so I’ve been sending someone to school for 25 years now. That’s a lot of parent-teacher meetings, don’t you know. My oldest, my precious Attention Deficit child, was labeled “unteachable” in his early years. I’m going to tell you a special story about the teacher who saved him.

Mrs. Neff taught 3rd grade at a school in Yuma, Arizona, where my oldest had been placed in a “special” classroom for incorrigible students. He hated that class because he loved learning and most of the kids placed there did not. (Sadly, the room earned the nickname “animal house” for the behaviors displayed there). Few people had heard of ADD at that time, and they just thought he was a bad kid. In fact, he was so smart, the teachers just couldn’t keep him busy, and so he self-entertained, often to the point of disruption. Mrs. Neff noticed he had a knack for math and challenged him one day, saying that if he could sit still in her class he could visit her for math class each day.

Well, that young man did such a good job that Mrs. Neff opened the door wider, inviting him to visit during reading time as well, and then for science. She also took on the challenge of learning all about ADD, taking night classes and incorporated many of the tips she learned into her teaching, specifically to keep him engaged. By the end of the school year, my son was fully “mainstreamed” and behaving (for the most part) like the rest of the children. My heart nearly broke to think he would have to start over in the 4th grade with someone new.

But he didn’t. She moved with him. Just to keep his world consistent. And he thrived.

Journal entry for crater in Arizona

Chronicling a cross-country adventure.

When he neared the end of the 4th grade, we received orders to Virginia and had to leave. My son made a scrap book of the trip across country that he mailed to his class when he arrived on the east coast. Mrs. Neff shared the book with the class and had them all write notes of encouragement and well wishes on the pages. Then she sent it back to him.

What a teacher. I swear to this day that she is the reason he didn’t fall through the cracks. Well…there was also his 6th grade biology teacher who pretended she didn’t know he was listening when she said to us, “Frankly, I don’t think he’s got what it takes to make it in my class,” which sparked an “I’ll show her!” attitude that carried through the year. And Mr. Brown, his high school band teacher, who made band a family, and fostered a strict but caring environment that my son loved. For the privilege of staying in the band, he not only made sure to stay out of trouble in his other classes, but he became an accomplished saxophonist and still plays today. And many others.

Today my oldest is a bright, funny, hard-working, compassionate man, and it wasn’t my doing, I assure you. Without just the right people in just the right places, using just the right mix of love and psychology, I honestly don’t know if he would have graduated.

So, today I send kudos to all the teachers out there. Know that you are making a difference. And when you get the “unique” students, don’t wonder why they’re in your life. Ask why you’re in theirs. You matter. A lot.

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Let my teaching fall like rain and my words descend like dew, like showers on new grass, like abundant rain on tender plants. –Deuteronomy 32:2

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NOTE: Thank you to everyone who sent me blog ideas. My list runneth over. I will certainly be drawing from it as the month unfolds. Stay tuned!