Thursday, May 05, 2011

Teacher, Teacher...Can You Teach Me?

About a month and a half ago, I wrote a column about teachers, when they were under attack from many different angles. And I meant to post it here sooner...but the timing isn't so bad, as it's National Teacher Appreciation Week. So here it is. [note: all of you teachers out there, feel free to edit for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and style.]

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I’ve been told many times that I have a conversational style of writing, which is fortunate, because that’s what I strive for.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read this column more than a handful of times that very little attempt is made to be formal or technical in these paragraphs. I show up each week with a tale to tell or an opinion to share, and I “um” and “ah” sometimes a bit too much, and throw in a comma here or there where my brain is taking a momentary pause.

It’s been my lifelong love of words and language that has brought me to this point as a columnist and writer, and it is yet to be determined where it might take me.

I credit any number of teachers in my past for instilling in me that love, and since teachers are receiving a bad rap these days, I thought I’d share what they’ve meant to me from an early age to today. 

I learned to read when I was 4 years old (or so I’ve been told; my memory from that long ago is sketchy), sitting alongside my mom as she helped my older sister with her reading assignments.

In first grade, my class used reading assignments from a company called SRA. All I remember about them is those initials, and that the various levels were color-coded. I read at least one or two colors above other students in my class. And as my reading path continued and became more advanced, who guided me? My teachers.

Later in elementary school, I delved into subjects and predicates, direct and indirect objects. In middle school, I eagerly absorbed the finer points of colons and semicolons. (And whomever was responsible for teaching me about ellipses must have had some…kind…of influence. I paid extra attention in that class.) It all made perfect sense to me, and I was good at it. Better than most.

In high school, I met my most eccentric teacher, and the one who made the longest-lasting impression on me, with encyclopedias of information regularly posted on the chalkboards, and a passion for books and literature and the idiosyncrasies of language.

My teachers were there for every step, pushing me to the next level. Although English was my strong suit, I’m not discounting teachers of other subjects. I may not have excelled in calculus, but I credit my wildly demonstrative sophomore geometry teacher for my love of the rhombus.

And my chemistry teacher taught me to light a Bunsen burner without triggering a class-interrupting explosion. He also provided a daily dose of dry, subtle humor and sarcasm, which proved to be an invaluable life lesson.

This column is not to brag about how smart I am. On the contrary, I don’t even have a college degree (which, in and of itself, tells little about a person’s intelligence). But even on the college level, I had professors who cared, when I was at a point in my life when I didn’t.

It took until my late 30s to stumble across my soul mate, who, fittingly, is an English teacher, and ironically, is a professor. With almost more degrees than I have fingers.

We sit around and argue hyphens and compound words and grammar for fun, and I win my share of those battles. And then we discuss literature or poetry, and she blows me out of the water.

I’ve been surrounded by teachers all my life, and now in my 40s, I get to hang with some wicked smart people and learn about some of what I missed by not fulfilling my college experience.

In the nearly nine years I’ve been writing this column, it’s been widely accepted by 20-somethings to octogenarians, from students to doctors to, yes, teachers.

And for that, I thank all of the teachers along the way who’ve helped and continue to help build my love of language. Teachers are to be praised, not vilified.

That’s not taking anything away from psychologists or landscapers, lawyers or masons. The work they do is as important as anyone else’s. But it was a teacher who guided them on their career path.

Oh, and my mom?

She was a teacher.

“No bubble is so iridescent or floats longer
than that blown by the successful teacher.” 
—William Osler