I am developing permanent calluses on my fingers from cutting out paper mittens, animals, and fruits. Every Tuesday morning, I drop Kellen off with my mother-in-law and volunteer at Liam’s preschool for three hours. I thought I would be spending my time fingerpainting and building block towers. Instead, I cut page after page as I eavesdrop on the teacher illustrating how a seed grows into a plant or using a puppet to teach the children about good manners.
I thought the monotony of the job would bother me. Of course, I would love to have a more fun task. But I am happy to do it. One day I queried one of the assistants “who would be cutting all of these pages if I wasn’t here?”
She responded “I used to do it, but with budget cuts, I no longer have enough hours to get it done. Miss Christine does it. She either takes it home or stays here. Sometimes she’s here until seven at night.”
In the wake of the tragedy in Connecticut, we are reminded of the astounding people that teachers are. The instructors of that school went so far as to give their lives to protect their students. But even the teachers who were lucky enough to survive that day went the extra mile- comforting children through that horrific ordeal, doing everything in their power to guide their students through an episode they could not have the capacity to understand. I rarely use the word hero because I think it is used far to often. But those teachers are the definition of heroes.
In looking at their example, let’s be reminded of the job that teachers do every day. When Liam was still a toddler, I debated putting him into preschool. I wondered why I should pay for a job I could do at home. Attending his class was an eye opener. Perhaps I could teach him some of the things he was learning, but I could never provide the experience of attending class. His teacher has painstakingly mapped out detailed lessons, covering multitudes of topics in a few hours- the type of information it would take me days to organize. She is trained to capture his attention and impart knowledge. I have to repeat “pick up your toys” sometimes twenty times to be heard.
Perhaps the part of the job that is overlooked, is that teachers act as surrogate parents when we are not around. As moms and dads, maybe we don’t like to admit that someone else is doing our job. Of course, no one can replace a parent. But when Liam went camping for the first time, Miss Christine made sure to ask him how it went. The day he wore his firefighter outfit to school, she took notice and commented on how strong he looked. One day, he tripped and got a knot on his head. She held ice to the bump, gave him a hug, and told him it would be ok. She is that person for twenty five children four days a week. She takes care of him during those hours when I am not around.
Think back to the teachers who have touched your lives. We all have at least one. I attended a small rural school with kindergarten through twelfth grade all under the same roof. My graduating class was somewhere between twenty and twenty five people. Because of its size, my school attracted two types of teachers- young people fresh out of college and looking for experience, and seasoned teachers who stayed because they wanted to make a difference.
In a conservative, rural town, doing anything liberal can make you stick out like a sore thumb. The community I was raised in was white and Christian. I don’t say “primarily” white or Christian because I can’t think of a lasting example outside of that description. Our town boasted Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, Greek Orthodox, and a host of other Christian churches, but not a single Jewish synagogue or Buddhist temple. When I was in the sixth grade, an African American family moved into town. They moved before the end of the school year. I dare say most of the families leaned toward the right. I am not knocking the community by any means- I am simply pointing out it was not a place for diversity. For a teacher to take any sort of opposing viewpoint was not just difficult, but absolutely necessary. We needed to see a world that was bigger than our own, to know the viewpoint we saw was not the only one.
I remember my crazy high school history teacher. You always knew when he was teaching about the Vietnam War, because he would lead his class in a rousing rendition of “It’s 1-2-3-4, What the Hell Are We Fighting For.” My junior high history teacher who livened up every test review with a game of Jeopardy and ended the year forcing all of his classes to watch “Elvis: Live from Hawaii.” But the lesson that remains in my memory is when we spent a semester breaking down the similarities and differences of major religions- knowledge I still refer to.
There is one lady who shaped my life forever, my high school English teacher. In tenth grade, she asked us to write an essay on whether or not we considered ourselves to be idealists. She wrote an essay of her own and read it to our class. She described being an unapologetic idealist. The essay had an effect on me because I was young and wanted to change the world. Adults generally met my attitude with a “when you’re older, you’ll feel differently. We’ll see what you think once you are in the real world” response. It was refreshing to hear an adult, especially one I admired, mirroring my thoughts.
I was an avid reader, and she offered suggestions as I raced through books. Through her class, I was introduced to Kurt Vonnegut in the form of Harrison Bergeron. To this day, he is still my favorite author. But privately, she suggested I read The Color Purple. I had to ask for it in our school library. It was kept behind the counter and not on the shelves, because the book described a lesbian relationship.
She gave me a lasting legacy of believing in myself. Like many small towns, mine was ruled by sports. Nearly every student played sports, nearly every citizen attended games. It didn’t really matter what you did so long as you were on the team. But I was on our Forensics team. She was my coach. With her guidance, I went on to win back to back state championships in Original Oratory. My family still teases me, because if you walk into my old school, my picture is on the “Wall of Fame” as being a winner. I could not have done that without her.
Recently, I decided to go back to pursue my BA in elementary education. As I told people this, I was met with a few people questioning if there was a better path for me. They reminded me how tough it is to secure a teaching position in today’s market, and how measly the pay is. I am thankful for their consideration, because I know they are only looking out for my best interests. But as I thought about it, I realized I am truly happy when I am in the classroom. I look forward to my time at Liam’s school each week. I imagine that is how most teachers feel. They certainly aren’t getting into the profession because of the short work hours or great compensation. There must be a love there, a commitment to fulfilling a duty to children.
So I’m happy to spend three hours a week repetitively cutting shapes. Perhaps that means Miss Christine will get a break at night to enjoy her own family, or even have a little time for herself. Take a second to reflect on all of those men and women who have guided you on the path to where you are today, and offer a bit of thanks. They deserve it.