Sunday, March 11, 2012

What Matters Most

Do this exercise with me:

Take a moment. Let yourself be present as you read this and consider the questions I am about to ask you.  Tune out the dryer tumbling the zippered fleeces. Ask someone else to hold the baby for a moment. Put down the correcting pen (or the screwdriver, or the accounting logs, or the newspaper).

Who was your favorite teacher?
What made that teacher your favorite?
What skills or qualities separated him or her from the rest?
If you could tell that teacher something today, what would it be?

Pause. Think. Celebrate. Then, find a way to act on the last question.

Steve McGrath was my favorite teacher. He taught history, but I have no idea what I learned in his classes that was academic in nature (I'm confident there was a lot, though). Rather, it was the time this man spent with me, during homeroom and before and after school, that I remember most. And frankly, I don't even remember a specific conversation I ever had with him. I just know I had them. Lots of them.

And from all those conversations, from which grew some shared jokes (which I sort of remember), this is what I do remember: he never rejected me. Not as a student. Not as a needy, nerdy kid. And not as human being. And not only did he never reject me, he valued me. In all those conversations (the genesis or content of which I cannot remember, darn it), I always felt smart. Always.

I know I wasn't the only kid to feel that way about Mr. McGrath. My best friend felt that way, too. Probably some other kids did, too. It's highly likely. And chances are pretty great that Mr. McGrath wasn't the only teacher to see my potential, to value my contributions, or to appreciate my quirky (sophomoric?) sense of humor. But that he took the time to show me, through long discussions and debates, by allowing me to keep my stuff in his classroom closet instead of in a locker, and with much encouragement and support, that I mattered and he believed in me - that's what separated him from all the others.

Several years ago, I ran into Mr. McGrath at a town meeting, where he and I both lived and I was teaching (he was retired after a long career at my high school and in other area districts, where he'd moved through the ranks into administration). We had the opportunity to chat, and after I caught him up on my life, and he reviewed his, I was able to thank him for the immeasurable gifts he gave me when I was a gawky teenager, which both make me a better teacher, and continue to give me strength when I need it. He was moved, I believe, but in his response, he focused right back on me: he said he was always confident that I would be successful because I was strong and smart.

And now I find myself reflecting back, not only on lengthy discussions in a high school classroom 35 years ago between teacher and student, but also on one brief conversation just about 15 years ago between professional colleagues. And I should call him up. Or send him an email. Because I need to tell him this: he showed me then (in 1977) and then he showed me again (in 1997) and I still feel now (in 2012) that I matter.

Thanks, Mr. McGrath.

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