Later today, I will look at the faces of my students and I will try to predict the future. They are a mystery shrouded in wonder. What will they become? Will she be an achiever, the next big entrepreneur, a great parent, loyal citizen, or inspirational speaker? Will he die in a car crash speeding along the road? Will I visit them in prison? Will I write him a recommendation for acting school? I have taught all these students. Which one will this be?
I can’t know.
What is the exact moment where I change someone’s life forever? Where, if I had not been there, he would have gone in an entirely different direction, made a bad choice, or even failed to live out his life? And what are the moments where someone has done this for me?
It’s difficult to know. Often I don’t know until years later. The kid who stared me down from the back corner shooting daggers came back and said, “When you said that to me in class, it changed my life. And now I’m doing…”
Another kid said, “Yeah, Miss…nothing personal. History and Shakespeare just aren’t for me. But you’re cool.” Thanks, kid. Nothing personal, teach—you’re cool, but everything you do sucks.
“Okay, Luke. What’s your plan?” This is the point in the conversation where I usually get a ton of blank stares and give the “put some thought into making a plan I can get behind” speech.
“My dad owns six tow trucks. I’ve got contracts. I’m going to run that business and make it bigger.” Nicely done—spike the ball in my face. You have a plan. Let’s get busy.
“Listen, kid,” I said, “Don’t worry. I’ll teach you what you really need to know.” Lesson learned. Take the time to listen, and you’ll uncover the moment where you really influence a life. And it matters. In education, it’s easy to dictate instead of listen—especially now when numbers and targets measure the effectiveness of a teacher more than lives changed—how do we measure a life changed? There’s no data and targets for that. There should be.
One scholar returned from two tours in Iraq, and called me to meet him at the airport. He quoted back a speech I gave at graduation five years earlier. I had said that the world allows people to be mediocre, but I do not.
I said I am tired of asking scholars, “How are you doing this year?” only to hear, “Oh, I’m passing.” Passing is not good enough. I don’t want a doctor who “passed.” If I have a doctor who “passed” it means that seven out of ten times, I’ll should come out healthy and the remaining three visits—just run the math—I will not. I will look at his diploma on the wall as I fade out of this world, and hear the echoing phrase, “But I passed.”
If I go to my mechanic, I want my car to work 100% of the time, not 65-70%. I will hear, “But I passed,” as I am trying to avoid the devastating effects of Newton’s law about an object in motion staying in motion unless you get a mechanic who “just passed” and you are his lucky tenth customer. And so forth and so on.
This boy-turned-man–who had spent years defending my freedom feeling blessed because he only lost three of his friends in the process–came back and told me that he would not be mediocre. He would be excellent. And he is. What a humbling feeling.
So, by the numbers—because education is all about math—I know that I may only affect a small percent of students. Even if that number is one, I have no way of knowing which one that will be, and it is never the one I suspect. I must be constantly vigilant. I must get to know each person in front of me as an individual and serve his or her needs—especially the ones that aren’t apparent at first glance. Then, I can I plant the seed of knowledge, water it with inspiration, pick out the weeds of despair, and hope and pray that seed will grow.
It’s easy to be desensitized to the importance of this mission when looking at the numbers. The numbers promote fear in educators, which means we keep our noses to the grindstone to meet changing targets and we don’t always veer off the path to do what’s right. Education, in the name of reform, has become big data, small data, stats and evaluations. As such, I am watching good, good teachers make their exit plans because something is being lost in the quantification. You can’t measure the lives they have changed.
When I feel like we’ve lost our way, I take a moment and I leave the math behind and think again about the questions. What is the moment where I change a life forever? And who has done so for me?
I lived overseas in a large city. There were homeless, indigent, drunk, and stumbling people. In the beginning, I gave out small bills to these people. After a while, they became invisible. Obstacles to avoid on the way to my destination.
One day, I stepped over a man lying in the street. He could have been drunk. But he looked different—dead. I looked back. Yes, dead, indeed. And I walked by. Everyone else in a city of eleven million people walked by. Street venders, gypsies playing tunes, businessmen, mobsters. We all walked by.
We do this all the time.
We step over people who are dying or dead—spiritually dead, emotionally dead, morally dead, intellectually dead. We continue along our straight-line path and never veer from that course—never fulfilling our own incredible power to change a life, if we had just reached out and done the simplest thing. It’s as simple as listening. And occasionally taking action. Figuring out, one by one, who my students are—and what they need. Because math and history aren’t enough, tests be damned.
I am truly humbled by this power. I think of that man often, and I apologize to him through my daily interactions with others.
There is an old story that a man came upon a child at the beach. It was low tide and thousands of starfish had been washed up. The child was picking up each one and throwing it back into the ocean, saving its life. The man told the child he’d never get them all. The child said that they needed to go back in the water or they’d die.
“But you’ll never get them all. It’s pointless,” shrugged the man.
The child replied, “But I can get this one. It matters to this one.”
That is why I teach. To repay the people who have done this for me—who have changed my life at moments where I would have made poor choices, failed to fulfill my destiny, or made the decision to pass through the revolving door of life before my time. In teaching, I repay them and complete the cycle–the cycle that others have started, and people far better than me will continue, hopefully because of some effect I have had.