One of my most memorable classroom experiences occurred during 9th grade English Literature. English Lit involved lots of discussion questions and lots of reading, both at home and aloud in class. On one particular day, my teacher (let’s call her Mrs. Portfield) pulled me aside and put a sheet of paper in my hand. Mrs. Portfield told me that when it was my turn to read aloud, she wanted me to read what was on the paper instead of the textbook. I don’t remember what we were reading in class that day- maybe Beowulf or some such story- but when my turn came, I began to read aloud the words printed on paper:
“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream…”
It was Martin Luther King’s oratorical masterpiece, his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. By the time I was finished, the palms of my hands and underarms were drenched with sweat. The only sound in the room was my racing heart. I was so nervous, I refused to lift my head to look at my classmates. But I couldn’t help wondering what they were thinking and what they might say.
Fortunately, she broke the silence. “What Michael just read is from a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.,” My galloping heart gradually slowed. “Does anyone know what this speech is about?” And so began a discussion on the life of Martin Luther King.
I don’t know why she chose me to read the ‘Dream’ speech. Perhaps it was because I was one of the few Black students in her class, or maybe because I was one of the better readers in the room. I’ll never know. But the experience stayed with me for days afterward. For a moment, I was more than a student reading a speech for his classmates written by Martin Luther King. For a single moment in the life of a high school teenager, I was Martin Luther King.
Throughout my life there have been teachers, both within the halls of school and on the roads of life. The most important lesson they’ve imparted? That one person really can make a difference.
I believe that there are moments where time and destiny hang in the balance, when the right person at just the right time can nudge another to unflinchingly contemplate endless possibilities, even greatness itself. This is territory teachers like Mrs. Portfield walk every day.
I have been challenged, supported, criticized and encouraged by my teachers. My curiosity has been piqued, my imagination ignited, and I have been pushed to reach for the stars.
Teachers have an awesome power and responsibility to shape the minds of their students in ways that go beyond textbooks and homework assignments. They help us to see what is and what could be, especially for ourselves.
I believe in the power of teachers and in the magic of teachable moments.
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