Friday, February 12, 2010

If You Can Read This, Thank a Teacher

My friend Sandy, a fellow teacher and world traveler posted the following as her status update on Facebook today:

Remembering a time in Goa...a girl I passed everyday on my way to the library (yes there was a library there.)...asked me "what was it like? " and I didn't understand...."Reading...what is it like? " as a female child in a poor family she was uneducated and never had that joy....I tried to explain it ....but to this 18 year old with three children it only sounded like a dream world....


If that isn't a reminder to be thankful for what you have, I'm not sure what is. It reminded me of a time when I was teaching at a rehabilitation center. I had a young man in my class whose life's desire was to join the Army. He wore camouflage to class every day and preferred to be referred to by his last name. He was very able bodied (due in no small part to the fact that he subjected himself to an Army style fitness regimen), but had some significant learning challenges. He was unable to meet the education requirements.

He was a difficult student to work with. He had so much anger and frustration and while I never saw him take it out on a person, he was constantly flying into a rage and punching walls, doors, desks and other inanimate objects, usually accompanied by loud interjections. He made the other students nervous. Truth be told, he made me a little nervous. But I did work with him and we did make some slow steady progress. His will to learn was as strong as his temper.

Another professional opportunity opened up for me along with the opportunity to relocate. I took it. My students held a little going away party for me. After the party, I stayed behind to pack up my things. It was bittersweet, as most endings are. As the song says, "every new beginning comes from some other beginnings' end". I was alone in my classroom when he walked tentatively through the door.

"Can I tell you something?"

"Of course." I was a little nervous. This was a strong, volatile guy and I'd never been alone with him before. I started taking a mental inventory of who might be left in my wing of the building.

"I don't want you to go."

"You'll be fine - the new teacher is great."

"She won't be you."

Panic started to creep into my throat. He was stepping towards me. I was twenty-three at the time - only five years older than him. He punched my desk. I jumped back. "I don't want you to go."

And then, something unexpected: He raised his head and I could see that he'd been crying. I softened a bit, always a sucker for tears. "You don't understand," he continued. His voice was breaking now and he didn't look like a big scary man at all any more. He looked like a sad, vulnerable kid. He enveloped me in a hug - and that should have scared me, but it didn't. He was crying openly now, this strong, muscular, angry, military obsessed kid. Crying in my arms, because at this point I had returned the embrace. "You don't understand," he repeated, "You taught me to read. People have been trying to teach me to read since I was six years old and no one ever could. You did. And now you're leaving me."

Now let me stop right here and tell you that I don't believe this was due to any superior teaching skills on my part. I think it's more likely that he was just ready. I just happened to be the teacher who was in his life when that key turned. And it was the singular happiest moment of my teaching career.

As I gently extricated myself from his embrace - fearing a sexual harassment charge just as I was headed for a new life - he said, "I love you." I think he meant it. To Sir - er - Ma'am - with love.

I responded, "I'll never forget you." I meant it, too.

So. If you've read this post, you're lucky. You're luckier than Sandy's young lady friend. You're luckier than my student. You're lucky. Don't forget it. Show your appreciation by reading something wonderful today, and maybe by sparing a thought for the teachers and parents and caregivers in your life who saw to it that you could.

34 comments:

mama-face said...

I'm betting you were/are a superior teacher. You took the time and you cared and it obviously reached this man. It amazes me, although I know I am being naive, that children in our country can actually graduate, no get of grade school, without learning to read. How much else are they not learning for one thing? Ah...tangent.

I remember helping in a kindergarten class and this one little boy who struggled with everything; the most basic things. And certainly nothing I did helped...and I was always puzzled why he didn't have an aide and surprised that he was just left basically behind. He moved shortly after that and I have no idea what happened to him.

I adore all of the good teachers who work so hard.

af1blog said...

A beautiful and thought provoking post.

I suspect that it wasn't just that it was the right time for the guy in your story as you say, but was actually at least in part due to the fact that you really tried so hard and so patiently.

Sadly, there is an under-culture in mnay of our societies who see no value in education. What a pity they can't experience such wonder, it might transform their (and our) future.

Eva Gallant said...

A beautiful, compelling post. One of those rare moments you experience as a teacher!

Tsquared417 said...

Seriously, I've been crying for 2 weeks straight...and now this???? I love this. As teachers, these moments are few and far between but it's what we live for. Beautiful story!

P.S. Did you see my Tuesday Tunes shout out to your girl? :)

Frau said...

Wow that was beautiful thanks for sharing that with us!

carma said...

All these touching posts lately. I need to remember to have a tissue handy (I'm a softie)

There is a program in my town to assist with teaching immigrants to speak English and I've been tempted to sign up - if only this darn job wasn't taking up so much of my time....

But what I'd really love to do is to teach people to read.

I wouldn't discount your skills in helping you teach that young man to read. I bet it had everything to do with it, plus him knowing that someone really cared, possibly for the first time in his life...

MiMi said...

What a beautiful post, Tammy.
I'm still thinking 18 with 3 kids...yikes.
I once heard that if you are an American you are lucky. If you are an American AND a woman you are even extra lucky.

Tater Tot Mom said...

I have read something wonderful today...this post! Wow. Teachers are so important and I've never known this more than when I had my son and we learned he had apraxia. Now he's moving forward and will be able to be in a regular kindergarten class because of his wonderful teachers.

Sandy said...

The only thing I ever really wanted to be was a teacher. Unfortunately life got started before I got there. In my 30's I became a literacy volunteer teaching adults to read. In my short amount of training one of the realizations that really hit home with me about nonreading adults was how do you know what's in a can of Campbell's soup? There are pictures now but back then there weren't. One of my students was an older man, in his late 50's and he got very attached to me.

Great post. I'm sure there have been many students who were sorry to leave your classroom

Debbie said...

What an incredible post! I think you are selling yourself short. You must have really reached out and found something no one else had to teach him to read. How moving.

Pam said...

I have to agree with Debbie. You were able to teach him to read because you took the time to work with him and didn't just dismiss him as unteachable or trouble. I sure do hope that he was able to create a happy life for himself.

And as for reading... I simply can not imagine a life in which I couldn't read. Reading brings me such job.

Another great post from Mommakin!

Anali said...

Such a beautiful post! Thank goodness for you, your kindness and willingness to help him. You changed his life.

Happy Valentine's Day! ♥

The Redhead Riter said...

So true. I just had to comment. I loved and still love and appreciate all my teachers, but most especially my English teachers. The young women who took the time to inspire in me a passion for the written word. I have never forgotten them or the thrill I felt every day to be taught by them.

Very nice post. Hit me in my emotionally thankful spot today. That's a good thing.

Happy Valentine's Day!
A special note for you...
http://theredheadriter.blogspot.com/2010/02/i-spy-valentines-day.html

Joanna Jenkins said...

Wow Tammy, That is a powerful post. I'm going with your superior teaching skills as the bottom line here-- You changed his life!

xo

Melissa B. said...

Touching. I would have been honored to have a teacher like you. I don't think the profession gets near the respect it deserves.

Swine said...

If this wasn't so beautiful I wouldn't have to say this: When he hugged you, was he sporting wood?

Nobody makes me tear up! Nobody!

MaryRC said...

aww tam, you should give yourself more credit for his accomplishment. teachers are our windows to learning, and each window has a different view, each view has a different attraction to different people, and that view inspires learning. it turns that key. you my dear are a lovely window into a lovely view, you ARE inspiring. i could bear hug you right now with all the might of the scary military boy..

Gibby said...

This is an amazing post. Give yourself kudos, I'm sure you had more to do with this than you are giving yourself credit for. Now that my girls are in school, I know how important it is to have a teacher who pays attention to each child, focusing on their strengths and working on their weaknesses.

Love this post!

Unknown Mami said...

WTH!? I am a sobbing mess right now. What a wonderful post. I have all kinds of things I want to say, but I'm too busy crying. Just know this really touched me.

Traci said...

Okay, Tammy, now you've gone and made me cry. How lucky that young man was to have you. He may have been ready but he also needed someone to be patient beyond the hitting and kicking of tables and walls, you were that person. Own that. You changed someone's life. And you are right about reading. I have often imagined that life must be scary if you can't read. How do you ride a subway, take a drive, etc. and not get lost? How do you know if you are buying the right ingredients to a recipe? How do you use a recipe? We read a million little times a day and don't even think about it. You made that difference for him and I would bet money that he is not nearly as angry a man as he was before because of that.

Cheryl said...

WoW! That's one hell of a post. I wish you'd been my great-nephew's teacher. He needed that steady, kind hand and didn't get it.

MissKris said...

I AM lucky. I am so blessed to be able to read. I was so blessed with a mother who taught me the love of books. I am so fortunate to live in a country where I have books to read and I can read any one I choose. In the church I attend we've had many new members thru the years who are immigrants from Russia and Romania...their stories of the lack of freedom when their countries were under communism are enough to make any American thank the Good Lord above for the freedom we have in this country. We are so complacent and take SO much for granted. Even for schools that taught us to read.

Kathie @ Just a Happy Housewife said...

what a lovely post that made me cry!

I think half of teaching is just reaching students and you definitely did! There's nothing more rewarding than helping the students that others couldn't reach...in my opinion.

Tortuga said...

Oh what a precious, beautiful moment for you. I can only hope I will touch a student the way you touched that young man. To be the key in the lock to the rest of the world, what a monumental place to be.

croneandbearit said...

Tammy what a great moment - these are the ones we live for - look at how you changed that young man's life and look what he did for yours. I was a literacy tutor for adults for a few years and nothing beats the smile on their faces or the tears in their eyes when they first "get" the meaning of words. It's when the whole world suddenly becomes available to them. I can't imagine a world without the written word and am so thankful for those who taught me early to love reading and writing. Heartwarming post -- Hugs and blessings

Karen said...

What a beautiful post.

I can only imagine how much better that boy's life was, not because you were there at the right time, but because you did what you needed to at the right time.

WhiteSockGirl aka The Fabulous Bitch said...

Another beautiful post. So inspiring. A great teacher is the best gift for any student.

Ronnica said...

I LOVE to read and easily take it for granted. It saddens me when people don't really use this skill they have...there's so much out there to read and learn from, so many worlds to explore!

Rachel Cotterill said...

That's such a touching story. It's great that you made a difference to him - and fantastic that he recognised it :)

BONNIE K said...

A beautiful post. How wonderful to know you made such a difference in someone's life.

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

What a beautiful story. My daughter is a teacher who has gone out of her way to reach the overlooked kids, too, but no stories quite this dramatic! What a fabulous memory for you.

Beth P. said...

Wow - this sort of left me breathless. As much as you may believe he was simply ready to learn, there certainly had to be some sort of influence that you had on him. What a great memory to have in your heart. And what a special man he sounds like!

Melissa @ Cellulite Investigation said...

Even if he was just "ready," what an accomplishment on your part. That is definitely something to be proud of!

Lora said...

what an amazing story. we always called moments like that our "real paychecks" :)

reminds me of why I miss the classroom...