Friday, August 30, 2013

The Death of a Teacher; The Life of a Lesson

Yesterday wasn't such a great day in my classroom.  I've been teaching for a long time now, so I know some days will always be better than others; some lessons will fall by the wayside and others will be carried with students and teacher forever.

But the first meltdown always stings and brings questions about whether I've made the right choice.  Especially this year, more than ever, I find myself looking for signs that I'm where I should be.

So today, I sat in a tremendously long line at Chik Fil-A, praying for a better day or for a better outlook.  I checked my Twitter timeline and found this series of tweets about the death of Seamus Heaney.  The tweets are from one of my favorite Grantland writers, Brian Phillips, who was also a student of Heaney's.

(For you non-Twitter people, start from the bottom and read upward.  I could probably arrange it better, but I'm too tired to mess with it.  You'll adjust.)

I cannot admit to knowing a great deal about Heaney's work other than to know that he was very, very skilled at a medium (poetry) at which I am dreadful and that he was beloved and celebrated for that skill.

But what struck me in that exasperatingly slow line this morning was that Seamus Heaney was just as beloved for his time as a teacher.  It's a cool story, undoubtedly -- one that I would tell in bars and bookstores as many times as I possibly could -- but there is a reverence in these small 140 character spaces that cannot be denied.  I won't imagine that it was Heaney's fame that so impressed Brian Phillips but rather the singling out, the personal connection, the acknowledgment, that mattered most.  Did Heaney's fame intensify those things and make them more special?  Maybe. Maybe not.

My prayer is that it didn't -- that Phillips would be as devastated whether his teacher was a Nobel prize winner or not because, Nobel prize or not, Seamus Heaney did something to inspire a young man at a time when he seemed most lost.  He took the moment to hold his student to a standard, to put him in his place, to give encouragement, to provide acknowledgment, and then to bolster worth; he didn't have to, but he did it anyway.

That's what a great teacher does. He loves you and works with you both when you are wonderful and when you are dreadful.  He molds you through bad decisions or inflated ego or nervous hesitation.  He teaches the lesson in such a way that his words and actions will live on even when he cannot.  This, I believe, is the dream of all teachers, and it is the sting when the lesson falls upon deaf, or ungrateful, ears.

I have a student whose anger and defiance have derailed me every single day this week.  It has derailed us both, in truth, but he gave up his dream of staying on track long ago.  He is 13, and this devastates me.  But today, I thought of Brian's story about this man who didn't let him get away, and it changed my morning.  Consequently, it changed the interactions between this young man and me.  We may be back on track for only a short while, but at least there were no head-on collisions this morning.  Small progress is still progress.

So, Brian... when you say "it's not like I think what I do is all that important", I'd have to respectfully disagree with you today.  It was a pretty damn important story to share this morning because some lessons deserve to live on.

Thanks for honoring your teacher and for inspiring another one while sitting in an exceedingly (but timely) chicken biscuit line.  Neither you nor Seamus would've suspected as much, I'm sure.  I hope you'll have a pint for him tonight; every great teacher deserves one, especially on a Friday.

Be sure to follow Brian Phillips on Twitter at @runofplay or find his work on You won't regret it.

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