Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Seven Pillars of Learning

While this remembrance anticipates Teacher Appreciation Week 2009, I regret that I didn’t turn this in while more of my guides were still alive and teaching. Only lately, though, have I realized greatly their lessons resonate. Seven educators especially helped me in my journey. Their advice and finest intentions motivate me still.

Mrs. Colby in third grade worried that I was too flighty and predisposed to working fast, so that I could annoy the other pupils. (This was before the day of ADHD and related diagnoses.) Instead of dismissing me as incorrigible, she granted me my own bookshelf in her classroom. She put the district’s readers for the 4th through 6th grades on that shelf, and told me that once I finished my assignments in the 3rd grade reader, I could read the later grades’ books. Later, she gave me a note to hand the school librarian. I read it, and it said: “as long as Mike isn’t there when he should be in class, please let him pick out a book to read - and let me know what he’s reading.” I read a lot of books about horses, dogs and the far West, I recall. Mrs. Colby, I still disturb others, but your indulgence let me read well that much earlier and learn to enjoy words. In fact, I was a librarian for five years; and I hope I inspired one person to love reading and books. I’m glad you shipped me off to the library instead of to the principal’s office.

One day in my sixth grade class, in a disconnected moment, Mr. Meyers blurted out: “there’s something I want you to know. You can live on half of what you earn, no matter how little money you make.” At the end of that year, he left teaching. I was told that he went to work on the SS Hope, the world’s first peacetime hospital ship, along one coast of Africa. My hunch is that Mr. Meyers was talking mainly to himself, steeling against sacrifices he would make to do what he believed in. Thanks, Mr. Meyers, for being that kind of fellow who wants to matter in life. And for being right, on the money. In the fall of 1972, I lived simply, sleeping in a dump and earning the minimum wage; but I saved $400 in 3 months of honest labor. It’s soulfully liberating to know that money actually doesn’t determine your quality of life, when you stop listening to people telling you it does.

Daisybelle Elkins toiled in the seventh grade at H.W. Longfellow Intermediate, suitably-named for an English teacher’s travails. Mrs. Elkins saw that I was struggling horribly with sentence diagramming, an organizational skill she believed with all her heart to be vital to mastery of English grammar. I understood her philosophy even less than I did diagramming, but she was determined. For four agonizing weeks she coaxed me to visit her “home room” after school, where she waited for me to diagram scores of elusively-constructed sentences. She never was rewarded for her efforts. To this day, I haven’t an inkling of the difference between a predicate adjective and a predicate nominative. Candidly, I don’t grieve; these exercises seem, even now, an intellectual pleasure akin to gagging on Brussels sprouts. But I surely appreciated her patient determination and calm encouragement when I mangled another prone-position, skeletal diagram. Thanks, Mrs. Elkins, for caring about your craft and a hard-headed kid, and, by the way, my college major was English, and I graduated from a fairly tough department. Also, I don’t often leave sentence fragments on my paper (ignore the one in the preceding paragraph) or write run-on sentences (other than that last one). Who knows - maybe some of your instruction “took!”

My 10th grade English teacher, Mrs. Sokolov, gave me an “F” on my essay outline, so I complained bitterly. “You made a pretty good outline, Mike, but I told you not to write in complete sentences and to use Roman numerals and that if you had an A. in the outline, you must have a B. There are rules for outlining that have to be obeyed. Sometimes in life, Mike, you have to obey rules, and if you don’t like that, take control so you can make the rules instead.” She let me do the assignment again, however - then she marked a “C” in her grade book, triggering another bitter complaint. I protested that since I executed according to her directions, this was an injustice. “Perhaps,” she replied, “but a “C” is the average between what you got for your mark the first time and an “A” - do you know why I decided that?” I sighed, allowing that one must follow the rules the first time, which she confirmed with her penetrating stare, aimed above the low-slung rim of her half-spectacles. Mrs. Sokolov, for what it’s worth, in the 1990s, I drafted a bill introduced in both houses of a state legislature, which perished in committee. Nevertheless, the rule of law elegantly was rendered in the bill; there was, you might say, orderliness about its text. That’s your influence.

A punk in the 10th grade, I was making “F” marks and scraping by, so luckily someone noticed irreconcilably high scores on my standardized, “fill in the correct bubble” assessments. Mr. Massey was wise to me. One day he held me after, following my lame crack responding to one class-hour question. Massey gave me a bemused smile as I stood before his desk, and he said “Mr. Widener, you don’t have to embrace being dumb in order to fit in. There’s really nothing memorable in acting that way.” He gave me a brief, sad though determined stare, nodded me toward the door, and continued packing his briefcase. I still messed up in school for the rest of that year, but never again in his class (nor in Sokolov’s). I doubt you remember it, Mr. Massey, but we met each other on the Lawn at the University of Virginia six years later. (Why you were there I don’t know.) I recall I was late for class that Noontime when we passed each other, but each of us stopped suddenly and did a double-take. “What finds you here, Mr. Widener?” he asked. I explained that I was in my final semester of studies, and, responding to his “what’s next” inquiry, reported applying to graduate school. Massey smiled with his eyes, nodded quickly, and said evenly “well, imagine that.” He wheeled around and went about his business. And I mine, grateful for his critically-timed advice.

My nominal Junior and Senior year guidance counselor provided another reason I seldom messed up after Tenth grade, but not from his direct intervention. I still recall this reedy fellow, Mr. Carapace, with his short-sleeved white shirt, skinny tie with a perfunctory knot, opaque greenish horn-rimmed glasses and plastic-sleeved identification tag pinned to his pocket. I had just transferred to this school for my last two years. Marshall High awed me, this immensely-larger facility than my previous school. The campus contained a vocational-technical training center. Grudgingly in tow, I met Carapace with my mother in the cafeteria on pre-registration advisement day. We sat on hard plastic, picnic-style table seats. Tight-lipped, Carapace smirked at her: “Judging from his record these past two years, Mike seems to not have the attitude to attend a 4-year college. Perhaps he should look at the manual arts programs we offer here at Marshall, like auto mechanics or the trowel trades.” I knew Carapace was a fake from that very moment; my records proved how hopelessly inept I was at any activity that required dexterity or spatial harmonizing, confirmed by my grades in 8th grade shop class!

I shortly noticed my mom in a state of disbelief, absorbing his “counsel” about industrial vocations. Neither of my folks attended college, and a core conviction in their adult lives was to make sure their children had enough education to “get ahead” in whatever endeavor we chose. She was embarrassed for me, and maybe personally humiliated - or perhaps panicked about my shrinking, future options. My face burned in the parking lot - in shame, then anger (Sokolov and Massey were right!) and finally, determination. Carapace had landed on my list, as certainly I had on his; he never once said an encouraging word to me – nor did he need to. In no sense was he inept in his counsel. Maybe his speech was motivationally-intentioned, even though he’d never talked to me before that meeting. Yet Carapace delivered this fundamental lesson: You alone must chart your journey; no one else, including a person of authority or influence, has that prerogative. And this, related reminder: Only you are accountable for choices you make. Thanks for that instruction.

Joseph F. Kett, Ph.D., taught me in Charlottesville that studying history was not memorization of a chart of the achievements of accomplished dead men. Its payoff lies in understanding the passages (and recurring influences) of colliding principles that gradually burnish social institutions to improve, if not perfect, our order. Dr. Kett caused me to begin to understand the uses of history on a grander scale, inquiring “why that dominant idea, instead of another, and what difference did it make that the country chose that direction” – hello, social accountability! He also urged me to apply for a Rhodes scholarship in my last year of college, though his advocacy overwhelmed his judgment about one student’s acumen. Dr. Kett reminded me, as Mr. Massey did, that it’s senseless not to flex one’s mental faculties. All these teachers - and I think all fine teachers today - share this capacity: to imagine their students better than they encounter them, and invite them to reach their highest potential. Mine helped reinvent me, in modest but permanent ways. Such treasures!

Michael N. Widener passed through Fairfax County (VA) public schools before reaching Phoenix, where he practices, blogs about, and teaches law.

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