On Friday June 16th, my first sixth-grade class at Thornton-Donovan School graduated from high school. Already an emotional day as they were the most talented, genial class I’ve ever taught, the tears really started flowing when one of the co-valedictorians gave his address. In it, he lauded a select number of teachers who exhibited a fearlessness in their teaching that enabled him to become the young adult who will pursue engineering at Cornell University in the fall.
And there I was sitting with the rest of the faculty as he closed his speech explaining how I had changed his life by teaching him how to write and how to take pride in the work he produced and how I had continued to push him to produce his best regardless of the circumstance.
As if that did not validate why I work so hard at what I do, the same student further honored me on Monday when he asked me to participate in his Eagle Scout Court of Honor. An Eagle Scout myself, I jumped at the chance to escort him to stage with his father (also an Eagle Scout). What I didn’t expect, however, were his closing remarks where he awarded me a mentor pin for pushing him to finish his Eagle project and attain Scouting’s highest rank.
Now, I know what you’re thinking – that it’s a pin, so who cares – but, to me, that pin stands as one of the most significant awards I’ve ever received. And, as I joked with my student afterwards, he had managed to make me cry twice in the span of four days after not one drop fell in our nearly-six-year relationship.
In all seriousness, though, acting as a mentor is a role I have never taken lightly – whether it be a paid or unpaid position – for how crucial a positive role model can be in a youth’s development. And I do consider this to be a tantamount function of my job, as I mentioned in “The Business of Changing Lives.” Yet, while I embrace this as an opportunity to effect change in a child’s life, I sometimes wonder if I’m the right guy for the job.
Well, the easy answer is that I’ve always had a poor self-image, that I’m constantly filled with feelings of inadequacy. What’s more is that when I look in the mirror, whom I see is not necessarily the best role model: I smoke cigarettes, I’m brash and rude sometimes – arrogant too – and, occasionally, I perform this magic trick where I make mid-grade scotch disappear spontaneously, but I reserve this slight of hand for the weekend as I have a strict no-drinking policy during the week. Have you ever tried to teach kids with a ripping hangover? If so, you’re probably a busy work/flip on the video teacher who does not take the charge you’ve been given all that seriously.
Anyway, I’ve made some poor decisions over the years and I’ve certainly hurt my fair share of people in that time too, so who am I to be parceling out advice, to be molding the minds of the future?
At the same time, much in the same way parents always want their kids to have more than they themselves had, I want my students to have an easier time growing up than I did. So, I take my experiences – both positive and negative (and obviously school/age-appropriate) – and weave them together with my lesson plans to produce an anecdotal teaching style. And I think this candor endears me to my students because they see that I’m someone who’s real, who’s not going to give them the rose-colored perspective of unicorns and rainbows that they get from so many other people.
And I readily admit that I am as fallible as the next person, albeit with an advanced understanding of the English language and how to use it to articulate thoughts in the clearest possible way – among other skills. I’m certainly not the teacher who is the unquestioned authority or the one who has to be right all the time even when he/she’s wrong. I had plenty of those growing up, cut from the cloth of “Do as I say, not as I do!” And I vowed never to become that type of teacher when my time came.
I guess that this particular student’s words really struck me, for they made me reflect on all the good and the bad I’ve done. Yet, as I was staring down into the abyss of crippling self-doubt, I remembered all the hugs and congratulatory handshakes and fawning thank yous from the parents and their kids – the same kids who used to clean desks in my classroom when they misbehaved, the same kids whose homes I called when they copied their homework, the same kids who vehemently did not want to engage in the writing process because it was too much work. These are the kids who reaffirmed my belief that despite my myriad of shortcomings I am actually an okay teacher.
Who changes lives sometimes.
And maybe, one day, I’ll even consider myself worthy of such a lofty responsibility.