Lessons Learned

The teacher’s room coffee maker was slow, but there had never been a line before. Today wasn’t the usual french roast cure for seventh grade booger flinging kind of morning. Today was evaluation day. Mr. Barton was busy having a flash montage personal evaluation of his past history lessons when Mrs. Cooperson began to talk his ear off about her highest performing student.

“He simply never misses a beat!’ She exclaimed.

“I even altered one of my statistics lessons because he was pushing the class ahead of schedule with his questions. I know we aren’t supposed to but I can’t help thinking we may have the next Steve Jobs on our hands, you know?”

All Mr. Barton could manage was a scrunched half smile. After two years at the Helios School he had come to realize most teachers in Mountain View fancied themselves as part of the tech industry.

“Aren’t we just so lucky, fostering the next generation of billionaires!”

Feeling alone as he usually did among the rest of the staff, he pulled out the used Green Mountain k-cup that Mrs. Cooperson had blithely left behind. Dark Roast seemed fitting for evaluation day.

Mr. Barton had a genuine passion for history. He always felt that school was a structured accumulation of what our ancestors had learned. The study of the sometimes unintentional benefactors of our educational content had become a sort of religious quest for him. Especially because most historical figures were oblivious to the lessons they would teach us. That ignorance was what made the present seem so special to him, and what ultimately had led him to teaching.

He pushed his glasses further up his nose when his class filed in. Some were skipping, others stifling giggles from whatever inappropriate joke they concocted in the hallway. What Mr. Barton looked for first were smiles. He liked to think his class was unique in that measurement of success. Blue ink on the whiteboard reminded students of the date the current reading assignment on Andrew Carnegie was due. The standard wood podium for lecturing was set in a corner of the room, covered in textbooks. A minute or so after the students had taken their seats, a man in a grey pinstripe suit slinked in through the half opened door. Mr. Barton smiled and nodded at the man, who frowned in reply and took a note on his clipboard. The chairs were arranged in a square, with more than enough seats for the sixteen student class. Mr. Barton liked to move between seats among the class to change the flow of contributions during discussions. The pinstripe suit man dragged a desk away from the main body, took a seat, and straightened his tie. Helios school worked with government evaluators to avoid bias, and this man carried himself with the same rigidity of the public sector.

Before Mr. Barton began one of the classroom coordinators stuck her head through the door and apologized for interrupting. She reminded the kids that it was UNICEF month for collecting money for impoverished children around the world, and handed out the unassembled collection boxes to the class. Once the boxes had been handed out, she apologized again before leaving.

“Andrew Carnegie…” Mr. Barton began. “If it weren’t for him, Salesforce tower going in downtown would only be about as tall as the gym.” Definitely an exaggeration, which he realized too late was probably a bad idea with the teacher evaluator in the room, but that got the classes attention. Scribbling droned on the clipboard from the corner. Despite a surge of discomfort, Mr. Barton carried on, determined not to let the pinstripes get the best of him.

“Jerry, can you tell me why I made you read about Andrew Carnegie?”

“Cause he’s built so many famous buildings!” Jerry replied, eyes glistening with a clever pride. That got a few smirks from around the class, who Mr. Barton took a mental note of as kids that had done the reading.

“Almost Jerry, Carnegie is the founder of what is today known as US Steel. His business empire scaled the production of materials and infrastructure to facilitate modern day cities.” Mr. Barton went around the room asking for some of Carnegie’s other achievements and was impressed with the replies — railroads, bridges, public libraries and universities.

“Poverty,” came an answer from Susan, a new girl who’s family had moved from Pittsburg to the West coast only a few weeks ago. This was the first time she had raised her hand in class.

Mr. Barton tilted his head to the side. “Tell us more, Susan.”

The rest of the class went by quickly for Mr. Barton, but he got the feeling the discussion made an impression. Together they explored Carnegie’s success at the cost of the destitution his employees suffered through. While Mr. Barton moved from chair to chair amongst the class, they interpreted the schools, and libraries Carnegie created as monuments to a humanity too impoverished to utilize them. As the class finished analyzing Carnegie’s philanthropy as a consequence of his guilty conscience Mr. Barton made sure to throw one final wrench into the thought process:

“Do you think we’d be learning about Carnegie today if he hadn’t taken advantage of all those people?”

Right as the last student left the classroom the pinstripe suit evaluator finally finished his mad scribbling in the corner. He stood up looking more relaxed than he had coming in, and presented his hand to Mr. Barton. They shook.

Forty five years later Mr. Barton retired. He got a nice standing ovation in the school gym at graduation. He tried not to think of himself as the music teacher from the classic film, “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” but couldn’t help feeling a great sense of accomplishment and pride when several of his students from years past approached him after the graduation congratulating and thanking him.

After the ceremony he drove home from work, one last time. He dropped the keys on top of the shelf beside the door, taking a certain satisfaction knowing that despite his age he had still been able to pass the increasingly challenging autonomous driver tests to be able to share the road with self driving cars. Right as he set himself down in his favorite armchair, he heard a knock on the door.

When he opened it there was an older man wearing a pinstripe suit and a tie. He hadn’t seen anyone wearing a suit like that in almost two decades. The man handed Mr. Barton a manilla folder without saying a word, gave him a smile and a nod, then turned, shuffled down the front steps and along the road. Mr. Barton closed the door while opening the folder, confused by the strangeness of the visit. He walked back to his armchair then spread the contents of the folder across his lap.

The first symbol he recognized was one he hadn’t seen in almost twenty years. An old charity that had been acquired by larger government run enterprises. He had to put on his reading glasses to be sure. UNICEF with the old globe logo was displayed above several financial statements and disclosures. Time came to a stop for Mr. Barton as he read the first page:

“The following statement indicates the balance of Roth IRA account no. 7234 3345 1332 belonging to Mr. Dimitri Barton. The following balance is hereby available for immediate tax free withdrawal.”

Halfway down the page was a sticky note with a scribbled message in blue ink:

“Thank you, Mr. Barton.”

His eyes widened at the dollar sign on the bottom of the statement, he guessed it was more than he had made his entire career of teaching.

The next page had a logo and name he didn’t recognize, and described a fund that had been established by an anonymous benefactor over a hundred and fifty years ago to benefit teachers. The document outlined the fund’s mission and partnership with UNICEF to reward teachers for “Instilling human values” by making a very generously multiplied matching contribution on what the teacher’s students donate to UNICEF put towards an investment account for the teacher.

Mr. Barton sat back smiling. He looked up at the ceiling of his living room and saw a clear blue sky instead. This was more money than he had ever expected to have, and he knew exactly what he was going to do with it.