Dave Eggers, in a lovely tribute to his high school English teacher, Mr Criche, remembers getting back a paper with a short note on it that basically changed his life. It said: “Sure hope you become a writer.”
Over the next 10 years, I thought often about Mr. Criche’s six words. Whenever I felt discouraged, and this was often, it was those six words that came back to me and gave me strength. When a few instructors in college gently and not-so-gently tried to tell me I had no talent, I held Mr. Criche’s words before me like a shield.
I had a couple of really amazing teachers in high school too, and they made that four-year slough of despond not just bearable but occasionally even fun — and, in retrospect, kind of inspiring. I’m thinking about Mrs Page, whose AP English class injected Faulkner into my life; Mr Hood, who didn’t teach history so much as perform it, bring it bodily into that cheerless antiseptic classroom; Mr Lewis, a part-time actor who injected thespian flare into everything he did.
And most of all Mr Swift, who taught creative writing and ran the literary magazine and is, second only to my dad, a lot of the reason I’m still writing today.
Sadly, I don’t have a whole lot of specific memories of my time with Mr Swift — my brain is sort of an anti-sponge that way. But I do remember his bemused half-smile, and the way he delivered criticism — gently, in a way calculated to instruct rather than sting — and, most of all, his careful treatment of the overheated, “experimental” love story I submitted to the literary magazine in my junior year.
It was called Ladyfair, and it was garbage, bad enough to remain reliably mortifying a quarter century later. I remember handing it in to him, and waiting for his reaction — and not getting one. He just let it pass: without praise, thank god, but also without the scorn it so richly deserved. I can only guess at his motives, but I really think he was being careful not to bury my enthusiasm under the loam of it’s early mistakes. He thought there might be better things coming, and was wise (and kind) enough to nurture the good and ignore the awful.
We’re all clay when we’re young, and even people who aren’t responsible for molding us can screw us up pretty easily. When someone like Mr Swift, this guy who we weren’t related to, who we couldn’t really do anything for, who wasn’t contractually required to do anything more than yammer at us for 45 minutes every day and grade our papers and then move on to the next batch of disaffected wastrels — when people like that don’t just not fuck you up, but actually bend over backwards to help you become better than you otherwise would have been — I mean, I don’t believe in miracles, but I think that’s kind of miraculous.
It’s sad that we live in era that’s turning steadily against its teachers. Many states are mandating lockstop curricula geared less toward educating (much less inspiring) than they are toward getting you through standardized tests. Eggars, again:
I don’t remember Mr. Criche teaching us how to take standardized tests, but when we took them, we did well. I don’t remember Mr. Criche gearing his lesson plans toward any state-regulated curricula, but we did pretty well on any and every scale. Why? Because he made us curious. He was curious, so we were curious. He was hungry for learning, so we were hungry, too. He made us want to impress him with the contents of our brains. He taught us how to think and why.
Teachers are getting laid off1 in staggering numbers these days, and the ones who aren’t are enduring assaults on their already meager salaries and benefits. This is, in a word, insane. Even if the profession wasn’t filled with people who routinely go over and above the call of duty, it would still be one kazillion times more useful to society than the smug billionares who sit atop the income pyramid, busily trading and grifting and greasing palms and adding nothing to anyone’s lives except their own.
But education is filled with those kind of people. Matt Damon made this point, forcefully, at the SOS Teachers March in July:
A teacher wants to teach. I mean, why else would you take a shitty salary, and really long hours, and do that job, unless you really loved to do it?
Look, there’s no need to scour the world for weeping statues or messiah-shaped coffee stains or sane Tea Party candidates: there’s a miracle happening every day in every school in every state in the country. We take that for granted — I certainly did — but it’s a gift that we appear to be busily destroying.