Saturday, April 11, 2009


It’s not often that you get the chance to revisit your past through the eyes of others. Like Tom Sawyer at his own funeral, I’ve had that chance. It’s been quite an experience. Just shy of a week on Facebook and I was in the midst of an ongoing conversation with 30 or so kids who were in my junior high English classes in the mid-80’s. They’ve brought back memories of the tacit games they played with us teachers (“Let’s see if we can get her to talk about what life was like when....”) and fond relivings of classroom activities, both planned and unplanned. But the most alluring feature of these blasts from the past is the opportunity to see those years through their eyes. My memories are different from theirs; my memories are of elaborate lesson plans, some of which resulted in puppet plays written and presented by the students, the purpose of which was to master the elements of characterization. I wanted my 8th graders to master the concepts of effective summary. They rewrote, rehearsed, and then taped chapters from Jack London’s Call of the Wild. Each chapter was accompanied by their original art work that we transferred to acetate for presentation on an overhead projector. After laborious revisions to get each chapter down to a three-minute time frame, they issued a formal invitation to the school’s 6th graders to view the results. I was old-fashioned enough to believe that memorization is good for the brain. (Still think so!) So in order to get my recalcitrant ninth graders to memorize Shakespeare, I arranged them in small groups, each of which selected a scene from Romeo and Juliet to perform before the class, the assistant principal, the principal, the counselor, and anyone else whom we could coerce into attending the production. The kids created just enough costume and minimalist scenery to suggest Renaissance Italy. (Note to future teachers: a tippy table does not a stable balcony make!) Now, 20 years later, the public and private Facebook communiques from these “kids” tell me that their “rememberies” are different from mine. What they recall are not my elaborate lesson plans but rather those things that I took for granted: encouragement, kindness, a pat on the back when earned, a raised eyebrow when needed, but mostly they remember my insistence that mediocrity was not an option, and that thoughtful challenge of accepted ideas was something worth pursuing. Am I distressed that this is what they recall rather than all those carefully crafted activities? Not at all. I wanted my students to become people who asked questions, made thoughtful decisions, and communicated effectively with others. The activities and the English lessons therein were merely ways of getting to something much deeper. I am so grateful to have had the rare opportunity of hearing that what I did matters to them. Usually these things are left for one’s eulogies. And, as usual, the teacher learns more than she teaches. In this case, the lesson is a reminder to let the people in my life know how much they’ve mattered to me. I hope you have someone in your life who elicits in you the same sense of gratitude.

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