Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Something Beautiful From God

"Flight Practice With Instruction" by Brian Kershisnik

During my freshman year of college, I one day sat transfixed as a teacher sang the world anew. I don’t know what the reality was, but in my mind’s eye Steve Walker stands in the middle of a room full of students, a radiant smile on his face, his hands uplifted. Swallows and some other small passerine birds shoot from his fingertips and flutter around the room, alighting on my head and arms, lifting me. Light emanated from him as he wove poetry into the air—a bright, warm covering.

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

He was a magician and a miracle-worker. It was more than the words. His very being was poetry. His love and his enthusiasm and his gentleness and his humor. It was then I knew I wanted poetry flowing through my veins, quickening me and hastening my pulse. I perceived the igniting of a holy fire inside my immortal soul.

Teaching is more than mechanics and mnemonics; it is miracle and mystery. It is grace and a gift. A class is more than a system or a structure. It is soul and song and something else.

Professor Walker had memorized everyone’s name in a class of fifty students by the second day. He had us all up to his house for waffles and assorted jams. He loved us, and we knew it. He possessed an infectious enthusiasm. I have always loved the etymology of that word: en theos—God inside. One day he called me at my house. “Hi, this is Steve . . .” I racked my brain thinking of all the Steves who might be calling me. “You asked me a question in class and I didn’t like my answer. I looked into it.” He had done some research and spouted off three distinct sources for the answer he provided. No one knew about that call but me and him. He was genuine. He had a photographic memory and could read a ten page paper in five minutes and then quote back his favorite parts. My spirit stirred in that classroom. Tennyson’s “Ulysses” was the first poem I memorized.

This is my thesis: teachers matter. They make a difference. Mr. Jackson who surprised me by sincerely seeming to care when I dropped out of his calculus class. I still dropped the class, but his concern lingers with me. His gentle eyes. Mrs. Sillito, who asked me if I was alright one day as I slept through her Spanish class. Mrs. Black, who years after she taught me tracked me down where I work to tell me I was a bright and fun child in elementary school.

What was it old Nicodemus said to Jesus (who was the world's greatest teacher)? “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.” Sometimes teaching is thankless, but this Thanksgiving, I want to express my gratitude for teachers come from God.

My friend Brandon was born to drug-addicted parents. His mom was fourteen. His dad was fifteen. He had an older brother. By the time he was three, he was smoking marijuana. By five he was doing cocaine. He said that when he went to school, the other kids would make fun of him because he didn’t have any underwear and he was dirty and hungry and smelled like cigarettes and drugs. He would eat maybe once a day, at the local food shelter or at the school. His parents were dealing to fuel their addictions. One day in first grade he told his dad that he wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to go to school. His father punched him in the six-year-old face, breaking his nose and making him bleed and vomit. Then he told him to go to school. He went.

As a small boy he watched eight police officers attack his father. His dad sent three of them to the hospital before they finally subdued him with a tasers, batons, and a bean bag round. One officer had led him away so that he would not witness it all. He told me that by second grade he was so tired of life that he began to consider suicide. He wondered if he would always hurt, always be lonely, always be unloved. He felt worthless. No one cared about him. By second grade he was stealing and doing heavy drugs, and his second grade teacher pulled him aside and asked what was going on. He told her nothing. His father had threatened his life if he ever told about home. She told him she wasn’t going to let him leave until he told her. She told him everything would be alright. She told him she cared about him and wanted to help him. For the first time in his life he felt a faint glow of hope. I love that second grade teacher. I wonder if she knows what her career meant. If all it meant is that Brandon is okay, it was enough. He got taken into foster care and changed. He had more teachers who encouraged him, especially in his artwork. He became a sterling scholar in art with a 2.3 GPA. He is now a teacher. He teaches ceramics and makes pots with his feet and does one-handed pull-ups and wins rock-climbing championships and changes lives. And his students love him because he loves them and he has a catching laugh and a lot of joy. And he knows that love matters and love saves us.

There’s another teacher who I don’t really know, but who I heard speak in a church congregation I visited a few weeks ago. He teaches elementary school music. He said when they invited him to be a crossing guard before and after school he wondered why he got a masters degree. But that he loves to see the kids coming and going. That he loves to hear them laugh, and he loves to make them laugh. That nothing is better than serving kids. When he was in high school in California, he had a music teacher with a lot of enthusiasm. He loved him and kept in touch with him. This teacher had no kids, and when he retired, he and his wife moved out to Utah to be close to this man who was speaking in church. And when the old teachers wife had died and he was dying, this former student cared for his former teacher like a son would. Because teachers matter. Because teachers are holy. Thanks be to God.