Some might say that education has changed for the worse, limiting the amount of time that a teacher can interact with a student and ultimately only caring about the scores on tests. The ability to memorize and repeat information has become more valued than making connections and finding value in everyday life, and that is the realization that this art teacher came to after getting a visit from an old student.
My friend Charlie let himself in, back door slamming. He made a beeline for my refrigerator, searched out a Budweiser and slid into a kitchen chair. I regarded him with interest.
He had that shaken, bewildered look of someone who had just seen a ghost or maybe had confronted his own mortality. His eyes were rimmed with darkness and he kept waving his head from side to side as if carrying on a conversation inside himself. Finally he took a long swig of the beer and made eye contact.
I told him he looked pretty awful. He acknowledged that, adding that he felt even worse, shaken. Then he told me his remarkable story.
Charlie is an art teacher at a local high school. He has been there for many years and enjoys the envied reputation of one who is respected by colleagues and sought out by students. It seems that on this particular day he had been visited by a former student, returning after four or five years to show off her wedding ring, her new baby and her budding career.
Charlie stopped talking long enough to taste his beer. So, that was it, I thought. He had confronted his own mortality. The years fly past for a teacher and it is always disconcerting to blink and find a woman where only yesterday there had been a child.
“No, that wasn’t it, exactly,” Charlie informed me. “Not a lesson in mortality. Not a ghost.” It had instead been a lesson, he explained, in humility.
The visitor, Angela, had been a semi-serious art student nearly five years earlier. Charlie remembered her as a quiet, plain girl who mostly kept to herself, but who welcomed friendly overtures with shy smiles.
Now she was a confident young woman, a mother, who initiated conversations instead of responding to them. She had come to see her former art teacher and she had an agenda. She began after only a few preliminary amenities.
“When I was in high school,” she explained,”my stepfather abused me. He hit me and he came into my bed at night. It was horrible. I was deeply ashamed. I told no one. No one knew.
“Finally, during my junior year, my parents went away for the weekend, leaving me home alone for the first time. I planned my escape.
“They left on Thursday evening, so I spent the entire night preparing. I did my homework, wrote a long letter to my mother, and organized my belongings. I purchased a roll of wide plastic tape and spent an hour taping all the outside doors and windows of the garage from the inside. I put the keys in the ignition of my mother’s car, put my teddy bear on the passenger’s seat and then went up to bed.
“My plan was to go to school as usual on Friday and ride the bus home, as usual. I would wait at home until my parents called, talk to them, then go to the garage and start the engine. I figured nobody would find me until Sunday afternoon when my parents returned. I would be dead. I would be free.”
Angela had held to her plan until eighth-period art class, when Charlie, her art teacher, sat on the stool next to her, examined her artwork and placed a friendly hand on her shoulder. He made small talk, listened to her response, and moved on.
Angela had gone home that Friday afternoon and written a second, different letter of good-bye to her mother. She removed the tape from the garage and packed her teddy bear with the rest of her belongings. Then she called her minister, who immediately came for her. She left her parents’ home and never went back. She flourished and she gave Charlie the credit.
The story nearing its end, Charlie and I shared some quiet conversation about schools that warn teachers not to touch students, about the philosophy that social time in schools is wasted time, about how sheer numbers of students sometimes preclude this type of encounter. How many times, we wondered, had we flippantly related to students in need? We sat in silence then, soaking up the intensity and implications of such a story. This type of encounter must happen thousands of times in schools and churches and shopping malls every day. It was nothing special. Adults like Charlie do it naturally, without thinking.
Then Charlie gave his interpretation. Angela had decided in that moment, in that art class, that if a casually friendly teacher cared enough about her to take the time to stop, make contact, look at her and listen to her, then there must be other people who cared about her, too. She could find them.
Charlie put his head in his hands while I rubbed the gooseflesh from my arms. He looked up at me, armed with his new lesson in humility. “Nancy,” he said very quietly, very emphatically, “what humbles me the most is that I don’t even remember the incident!”
And all these years later, she had come back to tell him that she credited him with saving her life.
The moral of the story – whether or not you think that the education system needs reform – is that you never know how your actions will affect the life of someone else. This teacher’s brief interaction with a student literally saved her life. He didn’t remember it, but she did. Be mindful of how you treat others.
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