good teachers, the things we say, and… legacy
Mrs. P. saved my life.
Not literally, but she might as well have. She was a plump woman of average height with dirty blond curly hair, and pink cheeks. She could have been a younger version of Mrs. Claus. Few years later, she started going by Ms. Flynn – I did not pay much attention to changes like these back then, but now once again, I wonder what happened. The course she taught was called Writer’s Craft, and I took it in the first semester of being at yet another high school. That course was different from any course I have ever taken. No structured essays, no dull rubrics. We got to write stories, and poems, and… anything, really.
We took the course in a stuffy portable classroom – my high school was too large for its academic building, so many classes took place in trailer like spaces, set up like classrooms. One of the first tasks for that course was to get a designated notebook for that course. I remember going to the office supplies store and browsing for a long time, before finally settling on an accounting logbook with hard cover and light lines. I have loved that style of a notebook ever since – large pages, light lines. I can carry it with me everywhere without it getting too tattered. This became my first writing notebook – I still have it. I am currently on my 45th. I have every single one of them lined up on a bookshelf. I think if my house was on fire, I would save them first.
I think about her often. I wish I could say thank you. I wish I could tell her that she made my high school experience more tolerable. Barely tolerable still… but tolerable.
Mr. B. was a good teacher.
We lived in Netherlands for a year, trying to immigrate. It turned out the Europe was significantly less welcoming to foreigners than Canada is. Canada is like the Golden Retriever of countries – friendly and lovable, sometimes at its own peril.
Mr. B. taught geography. Or maybe Dutch. I do not remember what he taught. I remember that he was round and jolly. I remember that he would refuse to speak English to me, even though I knew for a fact that he spoke fluently whenever my parents came to the school. It turns out you learn a foreign language significantly faster if you cannot rely on the other foreign language that you already speak. Who would have thought? I remember the first time I realized that I understood what he asked me to do, even though he was asking it in Dutch. It felt great.
Dr. C.S. my calculus professor in first year of university.
I got accepted to one of the most prestigious computer science programs in the country, and went from being the smartest kid in the class, to a barely average kid, after all those smart kids started the same program. Dr. C.S. wore her hair short and blonde. She was quick to smile and even quicker to laugh. On Halloween, she showed up to class wearing pyjamas with glow in the dark pigs on them. She was also wearing pigtails and holding a teddy bear under her arm. She then proceeded to teach a lecture on confidence intervals and limits – writing formulas on the board, and holding the bear the entire time. Unknowingly, she gave me permission to have fun, while teaching. I dressed up for Halloween multiple times, and my students squealed from joy every single time.
The teachers themselves rarely know whose lives they have the most impact on. I learned that years later, becoming a teacher myself. I have taught hundreds of students. Maybe, thousands. I can only recall the names of a dozen or so.
A student stopped me in the hall once. I remembered her from the year before, but could not remember her name. She told me that my class changed her life. There was an assignment that I used to give to my students in the healthy lifestyle management course (yep, there is such a thing!) – it was to try something new. Students had two weeks, and they had to write about their experience. Students tried everything from green tea to skydiving – the sky was the limit (literally). This student tried kickboxing. It was now a year later, and she was still kickboxing – in fact, it became her sport, and she loved the new community she discovered in the process. The class really did change her life.
Another thing I heard quite a bit from students (and now, clients): “Remember that thing you said to me? I never forgot it”, or “When you told me that thing about that other thing, it really stayed with me”. I stand there, smiling and nodding, all the while raking my brain for what the hell I said.
Let me be completely honest, and possibly blow the cover of every single teacher out there.
We do not remember that thing.
Not that it was not a brilliant thing, or an important thing, or the very thing you needed to hear at the time.. Because it was all of those things. It’s just… we say many things to many people. And some of those things have a bigger impact than we have ever imagined. This fact is the one reason I always try to be very careful with my words. I never know who is listening.
You don’t remember all those lives you change.
You just know you have.
Eventually, they blur into a crowd that grows bigger and bigger.
That crowd is your legacy.
Liked this post? You may enjoy the sister post on “bad coaches, bad teachers” here.