During my second year of teaching, I taught across the hall from Jenny, a firecracker speech-drama teacher whose energy was rivaled only by her laughter and unruly curls. She was a fantastic teacher, popular with students, and she directed a spectacular musical every spring and coached an award-winning speech and drama team.
One day I was standing in the hall outside her classroom, and I overheard a conversation between Jenny and a student. I’ll call the student April. I knew April because she was failing my junior English class. A child of severe poverty and parental dysfunction, April read at a second-grade level and was the victim of a host of behavioral and cognitive disabilities.
“I want to be a lawyer someday,” she said to Jenny, who, in return, was effusive with encouragement, citing several examples when April had exhibited some lawyer-like quality.
I stood in the hall and rolled my eyes. When April left, I walked into Jenny’s room.
“Don’t you think you’re doing a disservice to her?” I said.
“In what way?” She was truly puzzled.
“Why would you tell a kid who can barely read that she might be a lawyer? She doesn’t even have a good chance of getting out of high school,” I said.
“We don’t know that. Who says?”
“Her ACT scores?”
“Well, if she does become a lawyer, I don’t want to be that one old crone English teacher who told her she couldn’t do it. I want to be the one person who thought she could do it, the one person she thanks when she passes her bar exam at the top of her class,” Jenny said.
That was 1994, and I’ve thought about this piece of advice for 20 years now. Teachers can be positive even in the face of vast deficiencies or they can be in the business of harsh reality in the guise of doing students a favor. It’s a pedagogical and philosophical choice. You can deliver the big bad news to kids about their future, a future you don’t really know, or you can just allow the world to unfold as it does, but always be standing on the side of encouragement, even when you know the outlook is bleak.
And maybe the outlook isn’t as bleak as you think.
I’m not exactly sure what happened to April. Perhaps she didn’t graduate high school. Maybe she dropped out and got a job as a janitor. At a law firm. And maybe one of the attorneys needed some help on the weekends and asked April to file papers, and while filing those papers, she started picking up on the language of the law, and she expressed an interest in getting her GED, then she got an associate’s degree as a paralegal, and then she decided to finish an undergraduate degree, then was accepted to law school, and viola, here we are, a dozen years later, and there’s April walking across the stage to accept her degree of jurisprudence with the image of Jenny firmly in her mind saying, “I think you would make a great lawyer some day.”
Stranger things have happened. The data gatherers haven’t invented the measuring stick that can calculate those returns. As Kentucky poet Wendell Berry writes in his poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”:
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
No teacher will truly live to see the harvest of her work. The thing about teaching is that you never know. Are you changing the world or just moving beans around? Because regardless of what the bottom-line guys and the quantifiers say, good teaching can’t be measured, the outcomes can’t be predicted, and the true result isn’t known for decades.
But good teachers plant the seeds anyway, no matter the soil they are handed, and hope that the wonder and curiosity and passion they feed their students will be enough for alifetime of water and light. We invest in the millennium.