Sunday, June 30, 2013

He Taught Me

One of my favorite moments as a writer came after this article was published while I lived in Beijing. I wrote it about my son's big gruff PE teacher, and another teacher told me that "you made him cry." My proudest writing moment. Seriously. Go read it; I'll wait.

If you know me, you know I have a great deal of respect for teachers. Good teachers, that is. Not everyone who teaches ought to be teaching. But the good ones - and I've interacted with many - are priceless.

I try, when I'm lucky enough to have a great teacher for one of my kids, to write a letter thanking them at the end of the year, and I copy the principal. I figure, I'm not good at remembering to buy gifts, but I can write, so maybe that's gift enough?

One teacher I never thanked, though.

He taught me math in the eighth grade (Eighth? Or maybe ninth?), and he scared the hell out of me. He was not one of those teachers who tried to be your friend. He had little patience for fools. He expected a lot from us, and I was terrible at math. Truly awful. I thought so, anyway. But somehow, he assumed I could learn what he was teaching - no, he demanded it - and I found that when I listened to his explanations, they made sense somehow. I don't quite know if he did it, or if I did it, but I learned math somehow that year.

More than that, I learned that I was actually pretty smart. Before that, I don't think I knew how smart I was. I went to a small private school filled with supersmart kids. I probably floated somewhere in the upper half, but I wasn't exactly knocking people down with my brains. Once I figured out how to get through his class, though, it was smooth sailing from there on out. I broke the code that year, with his help, and I still don't know how it happened. I just know that the moment he walked into that classroom and started smacking papers down on our desks, my whole world changed.

I don't think he taught any other classes of mine. In fact, I seem to recall that he left the school after that year and didn't come back to teach there again until after I had already gone off to college. (You'd think I'd remember, wouldn't you? But you'd be wrong. I was pretty busy being a teenager, after all.) I did write him a letter that next year, after he'd gone, but honestly, I can't remember why I wrote to him or what I said. I think I was complaining about the new crop of teachers, or my lack of friends, or something else equally teen-angsty. And he wrote back - but if I was looking for sympathy, I was looking in the wrong place. He wrote no sympathetic words. Rather, he told me to stop complaining, to stop blaming other people and to get out there and make something of the opportunities I'd been given. You know: the things parents always want to tell their kids, but their kids never listen.

Well, he wasn't a parent, so I did listen. I kept that letter for many, many years, even though it pissed me off every time I read it, because he all but called me a whiny baby.

I went back after graduation, for my 10-year reunion, and he was there, teaching again at the school and married now, to my favorite high school English teacher. I talked to him, briefly, but it seemed he barely remembered me. It was such an odd sensation, meeting up with him as an adult, and I wanted to tell him what an impact he'd had on me, and what a difference he'd made in my life, on both an intellectual and a personal level. But I was somehow struck dumb, a kid again, and so I said nothing.

He died last week, Mr. Herroon did, and the news sent me spinning back into long-lost memories of my youth. I remember that feeling of fear when he threw a paper down on my desk, that fear that I wouldn't be able to find the answers to the questions in front of me. I remember that feeling of pride when I did something right and he pointed it out. Most of all, I remember that he was the first person who told me I was smart enough to figure things out on my own if only I'd trust myself. And so I did.

It's strange. I still don't like math. I'm still not particularly good at it. I did my best to avoid math classes in college - not a difficult feat for a Russian major. Yet I remember that one math class, and that one math teacher, perhaps more than any other. He set me down on a path and pointed in the direction I was supposed to go. Off I went, without looking back. I'm here today, in so many ways, because of that one teacher. In his own hard-edged way, he cared about us, about me, and somehow that allowed me to shine in ways that still surprise me today.

Thank you, Mr. Herroon. I wish I'd told you when I had the chance.


Popster said... [Reply]

Maybe you can't say that directly to Mr. Herroon but you can sure expess that to his wife (your favoite teacher) I'm sure she will be glad to know that you care.

Daniela Swider said... [Reply]

I like popster's idea. As a matter of fact, why not send her this blog post. It's beautiful!

I had the same love-hate relationship with math and chemistry. And I too have had a couple teachers who have for whatever reason believed that I was not a total loser (unlike some others, who had given up on me) and that helped me find myself and my confidence through the years. Amen to them - they are this worlds (un)sung heroes!

Daniela Swider said... [Reply]
This comment has been removed by the author.
Please. Write your own stuff.