Wissot: When said to the right student at the right time, a teacher’s words can last a lifetime (column)
I have forgotten what most of my teachers looked like and can remember even less of what they taught me.
I fondly remember Mr. Scott in junior high and Mr. Mayer in high school because they were good teachers who made being in their classes enjoyable. But neither of them said anything to me that had a lasting impact on my life.
No teacher could have. Not Aristotle. Not Annie Sullivan. Not Jaime Escalante. Not Gabe Kotter. I had no interest in learning and even less interest in school. I was majoring in fun, the more the better.
The only reason I went to school was to learn where the open houses and parties were taking place on the weekends. Today, I’m sure I wouldn’t have even bothered to show up. My friends could simply have texted me the information.
I went to summer school every year I was in high school. I went because I was told if I knuckled down and studied for 40 weeks instead of partying I could avoid the dreaded six weeks of summer school. I chose the dreaded six weeks of summer school.
This is the background I brought to college. Needless to say, my academic record of straight D’s left something to be desired. I applied to the worst schools in the New York City metropolitan area and was turned down by every one of them. Finally, out of pity or a clerical error, I was admitted to NYC Community College.
My father agreed to fund my first semester there. He said if I passed my courses, then he would consider ponying up for a second semester. If I didn’t, then he told me to enlist or enjoy my first job as a high school graduate.
I had to take a number of required courses that first semester, among them freshman composition. My instructor emphasized creative writing in that class. He urged us to use our imaginations, something I didn’t realize I had.
I casually turned in my first assignment hoping to earn a pedestrian “C.” To my shock, the paper came back with a big fat “A” on it. I had never received an “A” in anything since third grade. I checked the name on the page to make sure it was mine. No reason to celebrate an accomplishment I didn’t deserve. Better to return the paper to its rightful owner.
But lo and behold, it was my paper. Even more amazing were the words the instructor wrote in the margins of the page. He said things such as “Wow,” “Good image,” “You write well.” I was taken aback and immediately assumed he was being overly generous with his praise.
But when the second assignment came back with similar compliments, I began to think seriously about what he was trying to tell me. Had I misunderstood myself? Was I blind to my own abilities?
I concluded if I was good enough to be showered with that level of encouragement, I might consider doing something I had not done before: read. I embarked on my own Great Books curriculum. While my fellow passengers on the NYC subway were reading the New York Post, I was tackling the novels of Thomas Wolfe and the plays of George Bernard Shaw.
I transferred after two semesters to a four-year college majoring in English. After graduation, I found a job as a high school English teacher.
I wish I could tell you that warm and kind and benevolent teacher’s name. But I can’t because I don’t remember it. We never spoke. Never had a conversation. All he shared with me was what he said in the margins of a page. I’m not sure now that he said what he said because he saw a creative writer in the making or just an insecure student in need of some confidence building and support.
It really doesn’t matter, does it? Whatever his thinking was, it worked. He got me reading books and enjoying writing, which led to my becoming an English teacher.
In fact, I wouldn’t be writing this to you now were it not for him. I may have forgotten his name, but I will never forget what he did for me. He altered my perception of myself and brought meaning and purpose to my life for which I owe him an unpayable debt of gratitude.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.