When I first began teaching, my mind glowed with wondrous fantasies of what teaching high school English would be like. I was ready to conquer apathetic teen minds everywhere, show them how "cool" books and stories and poems were. I was ready to transform their lives with the power of Shakespeare, the vivid imagery of Bradbury, ready to woo them away from television and video games with the eerie resonance of Robert Frost.
And of course, I'd be loved by all for opening unto them these brand new worlds of imagination, wonder, and best of all...reading.
Also, my writing assignments would prove for them, once and for all, that they were all writers, their literary genius simply hiding inside, waiting for someone like me to burst it free. I'd eradicate the boring and trite "book reports", replace them with insightful literary critique essays and personal composition assignments, and....their own personal journal, which would set their minds afire with all the words they had been dying their whole lives to write.
Almost eleven years later, I'm much wiser. I've learned a lot. Had some unrealistic goals and dreams and aspirations crushed, yes...but I've learned that students take away almost MORE of what we are as people than what we necessarily teach them in the classroom, because, even though I HAVE taught several students who seemed grateful for the books I made them read and the essays I made them write, I've learned that, more often than not, many of my students were grateful for who I WAS, and how I treated them, than any book, poem, or essay I could have assigned.
Thus, I learned the greatest reward of teaching (also a double-edged sword): we leave thumbprints of ourselves on people. These thumbprints can stunt their growth, limit them, make them insecure...or they can help them grow. Make them realize their potential. Build them up. Make them feel worthwhile, and good.
In these eleven years, I've received several indications that I've been fortunate enough to have had at least a little impact on someone's life. One came about five years ago. One of my former junior high students actually wrote me a letter (addressed to my new job at the high school) thanking me for pounding in her head the concepts of essay structure and thesis statements, because when - at her new school - her fellow classmates were all mystified as to what these things meant and weren't faring well on state test preparations, she was excelling with flying colors, in her opinion because of my instruction. That, to this date, is one of the most powerful reminders that what I do every day in the classroom DOES make a difference. You just don't know it at the time. These things are seeds that flower down the road.
Most recently, a former student only just graduated - a member of my first Creative Writing class ever, and a fine writer at that - sent me the following message: "Mr L, I've written a short story and I'm thinking of submitting it to a few magazines. I think it's got some potential. Will you look it over for me?"
As you can imagine, I said yes, enthusiastically. A fine writer, this student is, and I'm excited to see what they've produced. Have no idea if this story will land anywhere, but because this writer has taken that first, all important leap: "I've written a short story and I'm thinking of submitting it to a few magazines" they've instantly rocketed past all the rest of the wanna-be's out there, and are now playing the game. Fighting the good fight. Trying to get published.
And it tickles me to think that maybe, just maybe...I had a little something to do with that...