After weeks of listening to so many shallow-minded politicians criticize teachers, let me invite everyone to take a step backward, take a deep breath, tone down the harsh rhetoric, and then take a moment to celebrate that one special teacher who changed each of us for a lifetime. To borrow from the words of John Steinbeck, “I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. It might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”
There is little doubt that each of us has a celebration story about that one special teacher who stepped into our lives at just that right moment in time and changed each of us forever. One of the most important lessons I learned was that my public-school teachers were not only concerned about how well I did in the classroom, they were equally concerned about how well I would be prepared to step out into an adult world which was at the time in turmoil because of the Vietnam war.
For me, the teacher who forever changed my life taught algebra at the local public high school in Cleveland, Ohio. Over the years, I have shared the story of my algebra teacher more than a hundred times as a tribute to the man I have never had the chance to thank, a man who patiently tolerated my absolute inability to grasp the concepts of letters becoming numbers. Although I have always embellished the story about my algebra teacher, there is some truth and some exaggeration in my experience with him, but there is one thing that is certain, without his willingness to go that extra mile, I would never have accomplished as much as I have in life.
As I tell the story, I failed algebra in both my sophomore and junior year. When I arrived for the first day of algebra class in my senior year, my teacher asked what I was doing there after having failed the previous years. I told him that I was there because I had promised mom that I would graduate from high school and I needed his algebra class to have enough credits to graduate. In a somber voice he asked me what I was going to do after high school and I responded that I assumed I would get drafted and end up in Vietnam. With that, he replied, Mr. Wohlander this is your lucky year. I think you are going to pass my class. Well, to this day, I really don’t remember my grade for algebra that year, but I do know that mom got her wish and I graduated from high school and I went on to join the Army.
I am certain that the story about my algebra teacher is not much different than the story each of you could tell about that one special teacher who touched your life. As I reflect on the past fifty years, I can only wonder where I would be today if my algebra teacher had not taken that one moment in time to listen to a young man who wanted to honor a promise to his mother to graduate from high school.
As I have reflected on the story of my algebra teacher over the years, I have come to realize that he was not unlike the thousands upon thousands of you who have chosen to be teachers, not simply to teach but to touch the minds of a child. In the words of Carl Jung, “[o]ne looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.”
To each of the thousands of teachers who have been wounded these past days, weeks, and months, let me end with an apology for those who are more concerned about political outcomes, than the future of our children. Let me say thank you to each of you for being a teacher who has touched a life and changed a child forever.
Finally, as I often do, I would invite each of you who has a story to tell about that one special teacher who touched your life to join me on my imaginary mountaintop and help me shout as loudly as possible to every teacher across the commonwealth that we love you, and thank you for sharing your gift of teaching!
Oh and, by the way, at the risk of making every algebra teacher mad at me, as I approach the winter of my life, another day has passed, and I have yet to use algebra once in my life; probably because I still cannot understand how x – y could possibly equal z.
Mark Wohlander, a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor, practices law in Lexington.
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