We’ve become accustomed to the moving spectacle of funerals of firefighters and police officers, where comrades from many jurisdictions show the colors, ride in formation, and remind us by their solidarity of the perilous and valuable work they do. Since September 11 of 2001 those events are even more emotionally gripping, more significant as reminders of the fragility of life and the weird and unpredictable forces at work in nature as well as humankind.
Of course we don’t expect such for teachers, and we don’t much tend toward uniforms (tweeds for men, colorful scarves for women?) and flags. But my father’s memorial service the other day was as close as I expect ever to come to one of those funerals, and it brought me strangely face to face with some aspects of this work than I have been reflecting on.
First, there were scores of my father’s old students, some of whom had also been my grandfather’s–men who had been in the classrooms at my father’s school sixty years ago and more. A line my siblings and I became accustomed to hearing that day was, “You know, your dad (or your grandfather) saved my life.”
These men are dyslexic and make no bones about it. The realization that they had a learning disability was the first step toward building lives that weren’t going to be defined by the other labels that peers, family members, and (I regret to say) even teachers were delighted to put on dyslexic kids in an earlier day: “stupid,” “lazy,” “uneducable”–even “retarded.” Students at The Gow School unanimously recount their relief when they realized that everyone else in their classes had the same challenge, and they can still–all these years later–recite some of the strategies they applied as they learned to compensate for their dyslexia. And they remain grateful, perhaps extravagantly but I think not, for the “life-saving” education they received. They’re doctors, lawyers, writers, filmmakers, entrepreneurs–doing all the work that bright, educated adults can do. And they see their education, and their teachers, as having rescued them from lives less focused, less satisfying–the frustrated lives of good minds limited in scope and cut off from opportunities by a learning disability.
So, a theme of the day was life-saving. I was never so proud.
But there was a second, more surprising thing, something I could have anticipated but that thirty-seven years of living in what we jokingly call the “Buffalo diaspora” had pushed from my mind. There was a kind of parade of figures from my own educational past: the wonderful high school math teacher who came into my life too late to save me from a life of uncertainty when faced with problems more complex than Algebra I; my fourth-grade teacher (imagine!), the only male classroom teacher at the suburban elementary school to which I had traveled each day from our tiny village and later the principal of the new elementary school (now closed) to which my younger brothers had gone; a host of former teachers from Gow whom I had known before, during, and after my couple of years as a teacher there; a high school classmate and close friend–my own supportive wingman when my grandmother had died in her home across the street from mine when I was a senior in high school.
My classmate’s own dad had been my seventh-grade English teacher and the man who had suggested I start reading the sports pages and the comics so as to be able to actually converse with real people; I was apparently a bit abstracted from the agony and sweat of the human spirit in junior high. His son, my friend, now in turn teaches writing to people of all ages and has achieved what was once my dream of being a regular columnist, wry and funny and engaged and generous in his love for his community, for the local weekly newspaper–a mentor not just to his students but to his town. (Check out “The View from Right Field” in the East Aurora Advertiser, if you’re a fan of that estimable branch of journalism.)
These teacherly types and former, appreciative students made concrete for me something I already vaguely suspected: that teachers belong to their students at least as much as to their families. The best and most confident teachers are truly themselves in their classrooms perhaps as nowhere else, and so their students see them and know them intimately and have the opportunity to understand them–and care for them if the right chemistry is at work–better, perhaps, than their own households.
It’s comforting, then, and kind of awe-inspiring to know that memories of my father will stay not just with my immediate family but with the thousand men he taught. Even if there weren’t uniforms (if you don’t count the school blazers that the current head and a few current students were wearing and the Gow tartan tie sported by one of my nephews), the feeling was there–that we were saying goodbye to a guy who had saved lives, and that we were well supported by our own kind, sharing as teachers do our peculiar understanding of the weird and unpredictable forces at work in our own quiet and pretty humble profession.
I hate to add a political note, but I couldn’t help wishing that all the politicians who have been bashing teachers lately could have been there.