Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Teachers of Life in the Classroom

(written June 12, 2009, posted today)

I just finished Tuesdays with Morrie, and I still recommend it. I don’t want to go into too much detail because this small tome speaks volumes for itself. It is a story of a man and his dying teacher. It is their story to tell, not mine. I’m sure it will be another one of those books I re-read periodically.

This book brought to mind so many people whose lives have touched mine, but in particular, I’d like to single out some of my teachers to honor. Although I have had many informal teachers, I want to recognize some of those who have stood in front of my many classes over the years, some of those who touched me in some pivotal way in my life. (They all did on some level whether or not I was/am conscious of their influences. I just am not mentioning all of them.)

Mrs. Bishop- my first grade teacher who caught me cheating on a test on how to tell time. She taught me that I don’t need to cheat in order to look smart. Cheating is stupid and like stealing from another person’s brain. (Besides, what if their answers are wrong?)

Mrs. Arnold- my second grade teacher. I had a crush on her, but was still happy for her when she got married. She helped me learn to deal with bullies without beating them up.

Mr. Pence-my sixth grade social studies and science teacher. Before coming to our school, he taught on a Hopi reservation for a year. Through his stories and his obvious love of the people and the culture and his acute awareness of the devastating poverty and health issues there, he opened my eyes to the richness of diversity. And, he had me build a really cool eyeball model even when I didn’t think I could.

Mrs. Bouton- an English teacher from East Junior High who made linguistics into a fun game and first boosted my confidence in the written word.

Mrs. Neira- my high school English teacher who was the toughest teacher in the school. She piled on homework and graded hard. She didn’t let me get away with only doing as well as everyone else. She made me do my best in order to get a decent grade. Mrs. Neira always gave us her best and expected the same from us. We called her the “ditto queen” (with her total consent) because she didn’t think that any of the English textbooks on the market were adequate. She designed her own exercises and assignments, tailoring them for each class as needed to help us love English and ourselves as much as she did. I trusted her with some of my very personal writings that were not written for class. She said to me “never stop writing”. I have always been grateful for her faith in me. I write letters to her still. She never writes back, but she told me she wouldn’t. After all those years, I still hold out hope that she will write back.

Randall Robinson- an English professor from MSU. I took four or five different classes with him and went to England for a summer to learn from him. Randall taught me to love Shakespeare and made me sit down and shut up while other students lavished me with compliments. That was probably the single most uncomfortable, actually horrifying ten minutes of my life, and I thank him for it. He would never give me a 4.0, not because my writing wasn’t excellent, but because he knew that I was holding back my true soul from the page. He gave me a 4.0 the summer that I wrote a play about someone coming out for the first time as a lesbian to a lifelong friend. (I wish the real experience the following January had been as successful.)

Sister Beard- an African American studies professor at MSU was the coolest feminist black nun that I have ever met. Come to think of it, she is the only one. I had a bit (big) of a crush on her.

Reverend Doctor Kim Yarber- my history of African American religion professor at U of M Flint. Dr. Yarber taught me most of all not to write off anyone based upon their religious label (he is a Baptist minister). And, most of all, he cares what his students learn and he seems invested in how the knowledge his class inspired/inspires his students in everyday, long term and extraordinary ways. He speaks his truth and listens to others as they speak their truth.

Charles Thomas- my religion in American culture professor, who I also know from church. He teaches a touchy and personal subject in a way that encourages his students to express their views and share insights with one another. He seems to enjoy learning from his students as much as he enjoys seeing them get excited about their subjects. I must admit that I was nervous about taking his class because he has seen me at my very best-in the pulpit-where every word and note has been precisely chosen. I was afraid that he would either grade me really hard-using my performance in the pulpit as a measure of my abilities, or grading me too easy because of our church affiliation. He actually did neither of those things. He graded me fairly and I worked hard for his class-as it should be.

Tristan Hassell- teaches Philosophical Foundations of World Religions. His vast and varied mental library of knowledge blows my mind. I had a really hard time deciding on a paper topic for his class because I was afraid I couldn’t be original enough or inspiring enough. Insights from his class have really helped me to go further on the road to clarifying the language for my spiritual journey.

Larry Koch-(pronounced like the word, “cook”) is a sociology professor at U of M Flint. Larry agreed to supervise me in an independent reading class that was the most informative and fun grade I have ever earned. Larry is to me what Morrie is to Mitch Album- but without the terminal illness as a catalyst to the passing on of wisdom.

These are only a few of the formal teachers who have helped me to become who I am becoming. I know there are others whose lessons remain with me in everyday ways. They are in my heart and memories as well.

Of course, I have far more teachers of the informal kind: friends, past lovers and present partner, co-workers, kids I get paid to work with, kids I volunteer to work with, former customers, strangers. Each moment with someone has the potential to become a teaching moment. Each person becomes a teacher when one is receptive to being a student.

I plan to always be a student of those I meet.

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