Right around the fifth paragraph of Marie Lee’s op-ed in the New York Times To Sir With Love started playing in my head. It’s right around there she introduces us to Ms. Leibfried, her high school English teacher. It is Ms. Leibfried who “appeared at a critical juncture” in Marie’s life and gave her the confidence to go on as a writer.
In asking “how exactly do we measure the value of a teacher?” Marie reminds us that some things in life are truly priceless — that there is a profound difference between material costs and emotional value (or impact).
I have had some “great” teachers in my life. By “great” I mean they had a significant impact on my perceptions of the world and myself and not that they were distinguishably good in the classroom.
Like Marie, I also had an English teacher who inspired me to write. Not fiction but poetry. I like the rhythm. The way Allen Ginsberg said “Buddha” and the severe matter-of-fact manner of Burroughs reading from The Nova Express and Jack Kerouac. I like the ease Jack Kerouac sliding through the lines of The Subterraneans.
I am fortunate enough to be able to look at my early poems from high school and cringe. I say this because I’d like to believe my writing has matured since I penned my Police inspired couplets and since the time I first met Marie at the then fledgling Asian American Writer’s Workshop.
And I wonder, if the experiences were the same for both Marie and me, how many of us in that fledgling group of writers had teachers that inspired them as well? How many benefitted from that lone voice of encouragement that provided them with just the right amount of momentum to push them past the insecurities of expressing themselves honestly?
Much to the tolerance and patience of my friends and coworkers, I have been Bible-thumping Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers’ book, What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption. Among the concepts they bring to light regarding our relationship with material objects is the belief that (1) it is not so much the object that has meaning but the experiences the object has come to represent and (2) there are unintended positive environmental (and social) benefits to intentions (innovations and inventions) begun to meet a single objective or resolve a single condition.
The great teachers in my life have the same reach and power as that cassette collection that accompanied me for more than a score. They hadn’t been played in close to a decade but it was still hard eventually letting them go. In addition to helping me memorize the facts and figures I needed to get from test to test, these teachers provided me with lasting experiences that helped shape the course of my life and that I now try to pass on to my own children.
Marie is right. With the current public denigration of classroom teachers by ambitious politicians, fattening their careers on the fears and frustrations of a deflated nation, it is easy to forget the resounding and phenomenal impact teachers can have on a person beyond the here and now.