Teacher Appreciation Week is a time to pause and reflect on the good and important work that teachers do – and to openly express our gratitude to these people who have dedicated their lives to helping our children (and us, when we were children ourselves) become happy and productive members of society.
I am a product of public education. I can only imagine what my life would have been like if I had been born into a society without it. And I can only imagine what my school experience – and my life – would have been like without the benefit of the extraordinary courage, kindness, and skillful teaching exhibited by many individual teachers I had the good fortune to meet along the way.
Carole Rosen-Kaplan, for example, was my 11th grade English teacher. She became a dear friend. Sadly, she passed away recently. Carole’s sons asked me to provide some comments for her memorial service. I realize now – too late – that although we talked a couple of times a year, I never told her how much I appreciated her as a teacher, or what a profound impact her teaching had on my life. I regret that.
I’m trying to make up for it a bit by “paying it forward.” Teaching is extraordinarily hard work. Often it’s thankless. Sharing the comments below is my way of saying to all of you, teachers:
I appreciate what you do.
The work you do influences and transforms your students’ lives in ways you (and they) will probably never know.
I met Carole when I was a high school junior. Her English Composition class wasn’t the English elective I wanted that year, but it was the only one that fit my schedule.
In retrospect, the class was so thoughtfully crafted and compelling that even today (decades later) I could probably write down most of the syllabus from memory.
I wrote my first short story for that class. It was about an archaeologist who stumbles upon a powerful relic in Egypt and uses it to travel back in time but ends up trapped. Carole (Mrs. Rosen-Kaplan to me then) asked me if I plagiarized it. I thought “Wow, that must be a pretty good story.” I don’t think it was her intent in that moment, but that honest exchange started me thinking that if I could accidentally make an English Composition teacher believe I had stolen a published story then maybe I could be a real writer who actually published stories. (Inspiration takes many forms.)
I wrote several chapters of a novel that year (which she read and commented on in her own time), and later became president of the school’s Creative Writing Club - my first formal leadership role. One of my short stories won a prize in a writing competition. I later wrote a short story for my college essay. It worked! (I got in.) AND a love poem for a woman. It also worked! (She’s my wife.)
It turns out that English Composition is crazy powerful stuff.
That year I argued against nuclear stockpiling in a mock trial of the global superpowers and wrote passionately about the Vietnam war, the Holocaust, and human slavery.
The class *involved* writing but it wasn’t *about* writing. It was about love and hate, good and evil, right and wrong, politics and power.
As I reflect back on the class now, though, I realize that what is remarkable to me about Carole’s teaching is that we didn’t simply *read* other people’s thoughts on these themes or even write about them in the abstract. When writing for Carole we had to choose sides - we had to “try on” different points of view and in the end commit to one. On the theme of War: will you, as the author of this essay, choose to glorify or vilify it?
More importantly - on the subject of war: will you, as the author of your own life, choose to glorify or vilify it?
But helping us find our voice was only one of Carole’s objectives. Her other objective was to impress upon us our responsibility to use it.
Perhaps the most poignant statement of individual responsibility I have ever read is captured in these lines by Martin Niemöller (assigned in Carole's class) about the Nazi purges:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Socialist.I have recalled this passage to mind many times over the decades. It reminds me of my right - and my responsibility - to use my voice. More importantly, it reminds me that sometimes doing the right thing is deeply uncomfortable all around - and that courage does not mean the absence of fear but rather doing the right thing in the face of fear. Speaking up and speaking out is not the responsibility of a chosen few - it is the right and responsibility of every human being.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
Carole’s class was called “English Composition” but the full title should have been something like English Composition: How to Find Your Voice and Raise Hell Through Writing.
I think Carole saw promise in me as her 11th grade English Composition student and was disappointed that in the end she didn’t inspire me to pursue a creative writing career.
But here is what I would say to her in response to that…
Thanks in part to you I know who I am and who I aspire to become. I know what I stand for. I stand for what is right, what is true, what is just, and what is good. I stand for people - especially the people who can’t stand for themselves, like children. I stand for the right of every human being to discover their own voice and have the opportunity to be heard. I stand for the importance of helping people discover who they are, who they want to become, what they are deeply passionate about, and how to become the authors of their own lives.
No, you didn’t inspire me to become a creative writer.
You inspired me to become an Educator. Like you.
All my love,
April 26, 2014