In praise of teachers, who are the candle lighters

With my mom, my first teacher--and a public school educator for 30+ years.

With my mom, my first teacher–and a public school educator for 30+ years.

Well, I had this teacher who ________.

This is the start of an answer I’ve given hundreds of times at book clubs or venues where I’ve been a featured author or speaker. Because someone always asks, “What inspired you to write?” Or, “How did you know you were a writer?”

Good heaven, if I tried to fill in that blank with the countless teachers who have challenged, taught, encouraged, frustrated, believed in, and loved on me during my lifetime, the sentence would never end.

I attended proper school for 21 years. That’s more than the average bear. It’s K-12, college, and graduate school (twice). It doesn’t include preschool, Sunday school, or classes in art, piano, voice, and more. It’s leaving out church camp, sports camp, theatre, sports in general, youth fellowship, and after school activities guided by teachers, like student government, high school theatre, choir.

It doesn’t count the mentors I’ve had over the years in the form of my own parents and relatives, family friends, writer friends, speakers and workshop leaders at writer’s conferences and retreats, the dads involved in our 1980s YMCA group of “Indian Princesses” (Good Lord, the ’80s), the random physical therapist, my master gardener neighbors and relatives, the guy in Lowes who taught me how to rewire a Depression-era lamp, the older counselors at the summer camp where I worked for years, and, most recently, a nice young man named Jerry on YouTube, who taught me how to make a Captain Marvel star for my 6 year-old’s birthday party.

Teachers are everywhere. Teachers are everything.

But this week, we celebrate the school teachers. The ones who worked and studied their tails off, many for multiple years and with multiple student loans, in order to best do these jobs. The teachers in the classrooms and on the playgrounds of this country. The people who have given a major portion of their lives to a cause—and yes, I mean that exactly as I type it: a CAUSE—bigger than themselves, and certainly bigger than their meager paychecks.

A week ago teachers in N.C. marched on Raleigh, as they did in many other states. They did it for a myriad of reasons, but to demand appropriate compensation for the vital, challenging, people-building work they do. Literally, they are shaping tiny citizens—our country’s future, perhaps even humanity’s future.

No, I’m not exaggerating. Not for a second. But really, if you question why teachers march, or why we take the time to celebrate the work they do, you’re not paying attention.

For the love of Pete, I am utterly DONE with incurious, un-attention-paying people. DONE, I say. But that’s for another post.

This one’s about teachers. Mine, in particular. And about how thankful I am for their work on my behalf. For their patience. Their humor. Their ability to see something in me I might not have seen myself, and to nurture that something for those 21 years of schooling. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am, and who I am, without my teachers.

I tried to thank several of my teachers (notice I did not type “former”: a teacher is never “former” because their influence is unending—a voice you hear, a moment in time remembered always, in the oddest of moments) in the acknowledgements section of my first novel. I wasn’t sure I’d ever see another one published, and so I went big, and in doing so inadvertently left some of my teachers out because there are so gosh darned many of them!

For years, my public school teachers created community in our classrooms—thoughtful spaces where I felt smart, and challenged, and part of something. I felt this particularly in many of my high school classes. Now, as an adult, I value community on the cellular level—it is vital to me and the people I love in ways I never imagined. Teachers started that.

Well, I had this teacher who let me color outside the lines.

Well, I had this teacher who asked me to sing a duet.

Well, I had this teacher who held my essays up as examples.

Well, I had this teacher who gave me a part in a play.

Well, I had this teacher who told me not to let my perpetual tardiness affect my good work in his class.

Well, I had this teacher who insisted I was a writer.

Well, I had this teacher who treated me like a scholar.

Well, I had this teacher who asked me to read, at a county-wide event, the poem I’d written in honor of my grandmother’s death. When I couldn’t get through it (the grief still fresh), she stepped up beside me onstage at the podium, took the poem from me, and with her arm around my shoulders, finished it for me.

Now that I’m a mother with two children in public school, my appreciation for teachers has grown and changed. I’m well aware of the challenges we all face, parents and teachers alike. No one is perfect.

Why is it that “educator” is a position out of which we expect perfection? In every job, every career, mistakes are made. Is it because most teachers are women, and our society expects the same sort of mythical maternal perfection of teachers as we do mothers? Is it because we entrust our beloved children, our most valued gifts, to the care of these educators? Then, for heaven’s sake, we should value what they do just as highly as we expect their job performance.

Margaret Fuller, a 19th century American journalist, women’s rights advocate, editor, book critic, and more, once said, “If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.” I believe this speaks to the heart of what teachers do. They share knowledge, and in doing so share light.

I like to imagine my teachers standing in a line, in the coming dark. Young and old, male and female, an array of colors, each holding a candle—much like a candlelit church service—and they pass the light from one person to the next, on down the line which never ends. I light my candle from theirs, and so do my children. In this uncertain, confoundable world, I truly believe education, and educators, may be the only things which keep out the dark.

* If you’d like to learn more about why public school teachers marched recently, why they need to be paid what they deserve, and why they’re still teaching, many are talking and writing about it. Ask them.  

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