Teacher, Teacher

Ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2013, congratulations.

You’ve done a lot to get this far. You’ve sweated over finals. You’ve dodged cars in the school parking lot and marveled at “snow days” that lacked even the smallest touch of white. You’ve even survived the ultimate indignity – the disclosure of your middle name in a graduation program to all and sundry. (“Hey! Guess who’s named Chauncey!”)

Before long, you’ll be on your way, far away from infinite loops of “Pomp and Circumstance” and commencement speakers who think quoting from “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” is an original idea. Some are bound for college. Some for the military. Some might not be thinking about anything beyond the great backyard party at Steve’s in a few hours. (Psst – bring the sunscreen, OK?)

It’s going to be interesting to see where you guys end up. I know it was for us. My own class has seen actors and cops, photographers and engineers, even some poor soul who thinks newspapers are still a good job opportunity. I don’t expect to see anything less here.

But I’ll dare to make one prediction now. Each and every one of you will be teachers.

What’s more, you always have been.

For me, it started early. I was about five when I helped teach one little sister how to read; by the time I was in college, I was editing papers for my other sister at weird o’clock in the morning, hours before they were due. In between were a lot of study sessions and book-cracking with friends and family alike. (To this day, I suspect one of my high-school friends will never forget how to pronounce Von Steuben.)

But it’s funny. As I look back, tutoring has been the smallest part of the teaching and learning I’ve done in a lifetime.

The fact is, we’re teaching at every moment.

Regular readers of this column remember my wife’s disabled aunt Missy, whom we care for. From her, over the past two years, I’ve learned patience, wonder, an appreciation for simple things and a slower pace. (I’ve also learned how to overcome bedtime resistance and early-morning waking-up grouchiness, but that’s another story.)

I’ve learned reliability and a certain odd sense of humor from my parents. I’ve learned tricks and habits, good and bad, from colleagues in the newsroom or on the stage. I’ve learned in hundreds of interviews and stories, often with amazement, what people are really capable of. Sometimes it’s led me to a little soul-searching of my own – if a grade-school student can rally a small army of folks behind Hurricane Katrina relief or a teenager from small-town Kansas can learn math well enough to be accepted by Yale, what might I be capable of that I’ve sold myself short on?

And what am I teaching now? Are they lessons I want others to learn?

Every action teaches something, sets an example for what we think is good, bad or irrelevant. That has consequences. Some of them you see in the headlines. Maybe a president, or a CEO, or an attorney general had nothing to do with a controversial decision that was made. But what tone did they set, what unspoken lesson did they teach by their own behavior and attitudes that told a subordinate “This is OK. Don’t worry about what you’re doing”?

Stephen Sondheim, as usual, had a word for it. (Actually, he usually had several words for it, interlaced with an intricate rhythm to a deceptively simple tune, but we won’t go there.) In his musical Into the Woods, he concluded the fairy-tale action with one simple reminder:

“Careful the things you say, children will listen.
Careful the things you do, children will see – and learn.”

Careful. Not fearful. Not with anxiety or fret. But not without thought, either. Children are watching, and more than children.

School’s out. But class is in.

Teach well.

2 Replies to “Teacher, Teacher”

  1. Nicely said, Scott. And so pertinent for many of us in education this week. At the Dawson School, today our fourth graders will be involved in a special closing ceremony of the Lower School as they “move up” to fifth grade and become middle schoolers; our eighth graders will “move up” to ninth grade and become high schoolers; and our seniors will graduate on Saturday and enter into the college world. All are excited and grateful to their teachers, their mentors, for helping create the person they have become today. But their teachers know better; they know that these young people have taught them, challenged them, and inspired them to become better teachers and touched their lives as no other profession can. Teachers have one of the most difficult, yet rewarding, jobs in the world as they prepare our next generation to ‘stay calm and carry on.’ My utmost respect and admiration goes out to every teacher this week as they release their latest flock to spread their wings and soar into the next phase of their lives.

  2. Hi Scott,

    Man, I love your columns! It’s weird o’clock right now for me—although your clock, if you haven’t cleaned it, will say it is early Friday morning. Which it is early Friday morning, just earlier than your clock says it is. It’s weird o’clock, like 2:27 am. I haven’t been too good all the time like you in overcoming bedtime resistance.

    Actually, I just got done typing a letter to the Editor. Sometimes late at night is the best chance I get to do such things. I’ll catch a nap Saturday, hopefully. Those can be tricky to capture, though, and quite a disappointment to have escape.

    But man, I can so relate to your story here. I also taught my little sister, 2 years younger than me, everything I learned from Kindergarten and first grade. Mama didn’t send Karen to kindergarten, because I already taught her all she needed to know!

    Then, though, Karen, she usually edited my papers in high school and college.

    And sometimes I feel I have an odd sense of humor, too; inherited probably from my Dad mostly, but some from my mother’s side a bit maybe.

    Some of the best things my Dad and Mom taught us children were to love and accept each other; and they set a fine example. So did my Grandparents. Family is a great place to learn love. But you have to do it—you have to make the effort to show love and to live love. To be kind, gentle, forgiving, longsuffering, compassionate, serving one another, not selfish. I see those qualities in you and Heather as you care for Missy.

    And then in doing all those things, you learn things, sorting out the good, the bad and the indifferent as you say, and you become a better person, and people can learn from you. And people are always watching.

    Children and “more than children”, as you say. You never know just who is watching, so you should definitely always watch it.

    Which, I’m going to watch it this weekend. I’m going to come see “Camelot.” Thanks for blogging about it. Maybe I’ll learn something. We’re always learning. And always teaching.

    And well, this is what I joyfully did with my time tonight, turning me into what I will be tomorrow and the next day—hopefully not a pumpkin—but it is VERY weird o’clock now, and my bedtime resistance is waning thin.

    So goodnight. Thanks for the fun reads. Thanks for the lessons. : )

    Katherin Engelhard

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