In 1978 one of my students died tragically in an automobile accident on her way to my office to talk over her career plans. It was the suddenness of her death, I believe, along with the utter loss of so much potential, which left me wondering whether anything I had said in class had made a difference in her too-short life or, for that matter, in the lives of any of my students.
Her death was not only a great misfortune but also a defining moment for me. I believe for the first time in my life as a teacher, and I had been at it for only five years, I realized in the weeks that followed that I wasn’t in the classroom for myself. I was and remain there for the students, all of whom are giving me three hours a week of their most precious possession — their time. What I say and do should make a difference in their lives. The worst thief is a bad teacher.
So why do I teach? It’s my favorite question.
I teach because I believe I have an innate need to teach.
I teach because I love to learn.
I teach because I want to connect with people’s minds and hearts at the deepest levels possible.
I teach because I’m passionate about my subjects.
I teach because I want to make full use of my allotted time.
I teach because since childhood I have felt most comfortable on a campus, in a classroom, with books and pens and paper.
I teach because it gives me a forum and the freedom to confront many of the lies and distortions that threaten to sweep modern civilization under the rug of history.
I teach because I want to think as fast as possible, in as complex a way as possible, and put my thinking into forms that will perhaps benefit my students and anyone else who will listen.
I teach because I need to take risks.
I teach because I know that to stop teaching would be a form of self-destruction.
My father, during his youth in the early 1930s, had a recurring dream. He found himself standing at the edge of a deep ravine. A narrow walkway led to the other side. Although he wanted to cross it, he was afraid to try because far below a body lay, and he felt responsible for it being there, but he didn’t know why.
We talked about this dream many times. He told me how, as a high school student, he eventually came to understand that in his dream the body was his own — and that his fear of it kept him from walking across.
At the deepest and subtlest level of his being, that body stood for some of humanity’s basic fears: the fear of failure, the fear of being insignificant, and the feeling of worthlessness that comes with doubt about himself. Not until he heard and chose to believe the words of a teacher, who said, “Accept any challenge,” did my father find the courage to walk across to the other side.
Along with everything else, I believe that the role of a teacher in a student’s life is to help him or her to walk across — to the other wide where lies the potential to do great things and think great thoughts. The alternative — a life not lived — is unimaginable.
Though that student from 1978 didn’t live to realize her potential as a teacher, my joy of knowing her and thousands of students like her continues to inspire me every day.
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