To teach is to unlock the doors to knowledge and wisdom
Once upon a time in a land not so far away, I was an English teacher, and I loved it. It didn’t last long, that career I thought I might have, but I spent three of the best years. of my life in a small private school in a city I had just returned to after an absence of a few years. I had only two classes and a total of 35 students. This was 40 years ago. I was young and idealistic and full of enthusiasm. I would soon have my MEd. and be headed into a future full of possibility.
Unfortunately, this teaching career was short-lived for many complex reasons, and I ended up in a totally different career, but I have no regrets. With a small number of students you can establish a deeper rapport. You can take more time to read and grade their essays, and because of this you can instill in them the immense importance of writing.
Creative writing was a big component of my curriculum, in addition to imparting grammar skills. The students had attained, with widely varying degrees of success, the foundations of writing skills and grammar, from constructing sentences and paragraphs, in earlier grades. However, by 7th and 8th grade the rules of grammar and writing coherent sentences becomes critical. Without that in place it’s much more difficult to do well in high school English. I know from my own experience that this is true.
I was always a serious student, and writing came naturally to me, but especially so after I had confidence in my skills. Those were acquired in Mrs. Harvey’s 7th grade English class in a suburban New Orleans public school in the early 1960s. So well do I remember that class and how important it was to me, that to this day, over 50 years later, I still have the notebook with fold-down metal clips that I filled with notes, grammar rules and diagrammed. sentences. A lot of kids hated doing that, but sentences made perfect logical sense to me when they were diagrammed. Prepositional phrases, participles, adjectives and adverbs, all had their place, and I could visualize them perfectly through the diagrams.
Looking back all these years later, I think it should have been obvious to anyone and to me that I would do well in English each and every subsequent year of school after that, through high school. I still have my junior and senior year English research papers on Thoreau and Wordsworth. I’ve looked at them recently as I’ve gone through file boxes, preserved over the decades. Getting rid of personal artifacts like those papers has always been, and continues to be, unthinkable.
So I ended up majoring in English in college and after that for a number of years pursuing my first love, journalism, and a career as a newspaper reporter and editor.
By the time I started teaching English in that small school in 1980, I had already had a number of professional years of writing behind me. But I had moved away from the appreciation of literature that had been instilled in me throughout my undergraduate years of college. In a sense, I had to re-acquaint myself with poetry, short stories and novels. But it all fell into place as if I had never left behind those experiences with literature. Each of the years I was there, I produced with the assistance of the. 8th graders, the school newspaper, literature anthology, and yearbook. I had a lot of responsibilities, but when you love what you’re doing, you can accomplish what years later seems unimaginable.
The students kept journals all through the school year. They wrote essays every week, and they wrote a lot of poetry. I think they came to see that in free verse they could express their innermost thoughts in a form of writing totally geared to that, and which they could express in no other way. The results were often not only very surprising to me, but astonishing and magical. This was at that age when abstract thinking is becoming possible with rapid brain development in the years of early adolescence. In other words, they were growing up.
Needless to say, I’ve saved their literary anthologies, school newspapers and yearbooks, and from time to time I go through file folders with special examples of writing that I’ve kept and treasured.
What I’m finding is that when I make the effort to read the writing of students I frankly thought didn’t have as much creative potential as others who stood out, I discover that there is a depth to their thinking and writing that I didn’t fully see until now. What mysteries unfold themselves to me when I re-read, decades later, the creative writing of those students I had pretty much forgotten.
One of the writing assignments I had them do my first year of teaching, just a few weeks after the start of the school year (and I was still a bit nervous as a newbie) was a sentence completion exercise.
1) Wisdom is….
2) Happiness is….
3) I wonder when….
4) I wonder why….
As you can see, these call for for some rather deep and abstract thinking for such a young age. But they always surprised me.
One of the students could have been a bit of a troublemaker, but he and I came to terms about boundaries and limits, and we got along quite well. He was one of those students who could fall through the cracks if you had let him. But fortunately I didn’t.
Here’s how he completed the sentences:
1) “Wisdom is when someone is old and knows what to do and what not to do, someone who can give the right advice.”
2) Happiness is when someone is happy about their self, life, job, other people, and the world.”
3) “I wonder when there will be another world war.”
4) “I wonder why Iran is holding our hostages so long.”
I’ve been thinking more about his responses now than I ever did those many years ago. I tell people when the subject of teaching comes up that I learned as much or more from them than they may have ever learned from me. My job was not only to teach but to facilitate, or open the gates to thinking and knowledge so that they could take it from there and learn on their own, whether they knew it or not.