A human being should be able to
change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a
ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort
the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an
equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a
tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein
That'll Teach 'Em
Heraclitus said "Character is destiny." Author John Steakley wrote "We are what we do when it counts." In his latest film, Batman agrees "It isn't who I am inside, it's what I do that defines me." I fight with Keefe about this -- that protestations about what youíre going to do amount to nothing beside the actual choices you make and follow through on. His character, the person he will largely spend his adult life being, is starting to come through. He has grown far more complex of late and I am ever more aware of how greatly he needs the variety of perspectives that make up the proverbial child-raising village. There are subjects on his horizon he will not be comfortable talking about with me, and doors to walk through that I canít open for him. Thankfully, life affords us many teachers; occasionally, good ones. As North America stumbles towards a looming teacher shortage and political bodies of various sizes and stripes continue to show distain for the profession, I think a lot about who carries this sacred trust.
Next week we will bid a wistful farewell to Pam Tuff, Hugh's exemplary kindergarten teacher of the last two years. With the casual confidence and flexibility of a long time professional, I've watched her staying informed about differing educational philosophies and elegantly combining elements from this ideological buffet into a vibrant and unique play-based learning environment. She adapted this fluid structure to the interests, learning styles, and character of her students, enabling their innate love of learning to drive the program. She integrated curriculum expectations creatively within that context, so that scholastic proficiency became a natural outgrowth of themes of high interest. All of those educational buzzwords are really secondary, though. Any competent teacher can find ways to distill knowledge into open minds in their classroom. Great teachers are half mentor, speaking to students as whole individuals, and what will always endear Pam to me is her attention to providing a flexible and positive introduction to the whole school experience. She was always enthusiastic and fully present to the children, and the deep respect she provided them is irreplaceable. She is an iconic example of the dedicated teacher with a personal touch, and Hugh grew visibly, in confidence and self-reliance, within her classroom. As Pam retires, Iím not sure exactly what she will do next, but I wish her well (even as I secretly daydream that sheíll have some sort of religious experience that convinces her she wants to come back for one more year and teach grade one this time, I know sheís earned some peace and quiet).
Itís because our society has been treating schools more like factories and pupils more like product that Pam and her ilk are something of a dying breed. As Hugh makes the transition to full days and the more structured first grade life in the fall, itíll be with a teacher new to the school and unfamiliar with its alternative programs. Iím sure theyíll find someone with fine credentials, but Iím hoping mainly for someone who again sees and speaks to the whole child.
Keefe will also have a new teacher next year, apparently, and in middle school, where his emerging pubescent peers reside, the need for teachers with a touch of the mentor in them is more glaringly obvious. Why is it so hard to instill and support that quality in teaching, I wonder, but I know the answers. Mentoring is a process learned mainly by having mentors, and weíre so divorced from it in the modern world that I half think I need to define mentoring before even mentioning it. And, unfortunately, it seems that supporting this kind of bond between a student and teacher -- one that really fosters personal growth -- is the antithesis of economy of scale, especially in a world where cold, lean economic efficiency is widely touted as the greatest good.
In the end, a teacher can only open doors for a student, and it is the student who must walk through them. The truly defining lessons, though, the character choices, are a lot more like fumbling for the door in a dark room. Even knowing where the door is, you canít simply push others towards it, because theyíll instinctively recoil. A mentor, a wise friend who you respect and who treats you with frank dignity, provides you with a personal example thatís like an encouraging voice from the hidden doorway. What do you do when you are lost in the forest? Which way do you jump when youíre not sure whatís the right thing to do? What or when will you sacrifice, and what is sacrosanct? Character is destiny. We must remember how to build character, and that can only be done by example.
I still want to better understand who I am and where Iím going, an
elusive, constantly changing quantity. I remember mentors who shaped
my life and perceptions so greatly in my youth that I canít even
imagine who I might have become if I hadnít known them. Today I
find them. There are other men I respect who I can trade wisdoms with,
but I donít know anyone who seems to have gracefully walked the road
ahead of me already, much less with the time or patience to map me the
landmarks. I try to offer some mentorship to youths that come into my
circle, when they seem to be looking for it. You never know what five
minute conversation is actually going to bring home the key to one of
those dark doors, or for whom. Rudderless, Iím steering by the wind,
polishing the sharp edges of my destiny when I see them clearly in the
mirror, and hoping it makes a difference.
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