September being the month when kindergarten through college students go back to school, last night’s theme was “school/learning/teachers.” Four featured storytellers performed. At an open mic session after they spoke, attendees were invited to tell their own stories. As a former teacher, I had a lot of stories, but my ingrained inclination is to let the “kids” go first, so by the time five impromptu storytellers spoke, the evening was over. I did not tell my story last night, but it’s on my mind, so here goes:
As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a teacher. When my cousins and siblings played “school,” I stood at the front of the class and gave them assignments. I portrayed a teacher in a high school play. As a high school senior, I worked as a teacher’s assistant in the junior high. The teacher turned over her class of seventh-graders to me to teach for eight weeks. It seems astonishing now that a teen-ager would have been given that much autonomy, yet Laura Ingalls Wilder taught in a one-room schoolhouse from age 15 to age 17, so it’s not like the right person can’t teach, regardless of his or her age. I taught Greek mythology to my class of seventh-graders, and they loved it. They loved me. My mentor said, “You are a born teacher.”
But I saw how my mom, a history teacher, barely got her shoes toed off every day after school before collapsing on the couch for an hour-long nap before she made supper. She graded papers late into the evening after we went to bed. I did not want to live perpetually exhausted and a slave to my job.
So when I graduated from college, I did not graduate as a certified teacher. I headed off to New York City with a hundred dollars in my wallet and a fuzzy plan to make a big splash doing something in journalism or publishing, or maybe acting. I lived in the East Village. I went to museums. Auditioned. Wrote. Made friends. Spent my first Christmases away from home.
And yet, even though I loved living there, I skated on the surface of New York life because, deep in my heart, I knew this magnificent city was not where I was supposed to be. When I looked out my bedroom window at brick and mortar rather than at trees and grass, I knew I belonged in a greener place. I knew I needed to set down roots where my roots could grow. But I didn’t know where that might be.
One day, I flew down the steps of my apartment building on Fourteenth Street on my way to work, but when I got to the front door, a drunk was passed out across the threshold. I knocked on the inside of the door. I pounded. I yelled. He didn’t move.
I clicked the latch open and shoved. Finally, the drunk moved enough so my messenger bag and I could slip out. I strode toward the subway, late for work—and then I stopped, thinking, How can you leave a human being passed out and helpless? I ran back.
The man was still passed out. His clothes were filthy. His white hair was a mess. He stank. He had one of those noses severe alcoholics acquire over time, spongy and red and huge—think W.C Fields. I said, “Excuse me—can I get you some help? Do you want me to call somebody? Where do you live? Hello?”
He opened the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen, the same shade as the blue morpho butterfly but even more intense. He moved lips like two purple slugs. Drool spilled down his chin. He opened his mouth and said, “Brrbcckkkkgg.”
Loud and slow, I said,“ Do you want me to call an ambulance? The police?”
He was so drunk he couldn’t talk. When he laid back down, I shrugged and went to work.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about him, and my thoughts ultimately jelled around one idea: Blue Eyes had once been somebody’s baby. He’d been somebody’s little boy. He’d sat in somebody’s classroom. Hadn’t anybody cared about him? Hadn’t anybody made him feel he deserved better than ending up passed out in a doorway? Hadn’t anybody made him feel like he mattered?
And how many other blue- or green- or brown-eyed children in the world didn’t feel like they mattered? Could I help any of them? How?
People toss around the word “epiphany,” but as sure and bright as the sun coming from behind a cloud, I knew what I could do for these somewhere, someday kids I hadn't met yet: I could be their teacher.
I returned to the Midwest to earn a certificate to teach and got a job as an English teacher. Like my mom, I worked after-hours at my kitchen table: I filled big boxes with papers and dragged them home in a Radio Flyer, working literally one year at home for every five I spent in the classroom (yes, I did the math). And yet, despite all those years with students, I wasn’t certain I’d made the difference I’d hoped to make when I started.
That changed one day when I ran into a former student in the grocery store, a girl I’d had in class at the beginning of my career. When “Tiffany” saw me, she gave me a big hug. We chatted: she was the mother of two young adults; she liked her job; she and her husband got along. Then she said, “You know, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you.”
“At the grocery store?” I joked.
“No. When I took your stagecraft class, I wanted to kill myself.”
I sobered. “Wh-what?”
“I was planning to check out my freshman year,” she said.
A thick silence dropped around us. The other shoppers faded. She continued, “I’d had it with everything. I didn’t want to be here any more. And then I walked into your class. You gave me jobs that I had no idea how to do and expected me to try them. If I screwed up, you helped me. You praised me. You made me feel like I could do stuff. Like I belonged.”
I said, “You did belong. You were my kid.”
“I know. Everybody was your kid. But the thing is, I didn’t want to check out after I met you. When you showed me I mattered to you, I started to matter to myself.”
My throat was so tight, I couldn’t talk. So I hugged her. As I drove home, I thought, Even if Tiffany is the only one, it was all worth it.
Educator and anthropologist Loren Eiseley (about whom pal Ray Bradbury said, "[His] work changed my life") tells the story of a kid who tosses beached starfish back into the ocean. The story has gone round and round educational circles to a point that it’s become something of an eye-roller. Stop me if you've heard this one:
You matter. Never forget it.