It's a Bird! It's a Plane! No, It's a Teacher!
A few red leaves have begun to wave their fancy hello from the highest treetops in our backyard.
Whup, there it goes. The latch springs open, and a treasure-trove of fall memories breaks free: New shoes and knee socks, fresh haircuts and pristine binders. And teachers. Always, the teachers.
A journalist must disclose conflicts of interests, so I confess to this bias: I love teachers.
As far as I'm concerned, most teachers should be issued tights, capes and their own soundtracks at the beginning of each school year. They are underpaid and overworked, reviled and blamed, and taken for granted on a regular basis. They come in early and go home late and increasingly spend money out of their own pockets for our kids because we don't spend enough on our schools.
Think about what we ask of teachers. What other profession requires a single person to change the lives of dozens of humans a year by herding them into a combustible mix of skills and attention spans — and then pays less than the average autoworker or server at a high-end restaurant is paid?
That's not a slam against autoworkers and servers — they're hardworking and deserve to earn more than they get — but what does it say about us as a country that the average starting salary for a kindergarten teacher charged with molding the minds of our babies is only $34,000 a year?
No one has more potential to influence a child outside the perimeter of family than teachers. I remember my initial feeling of parental displacement when my 3-year-old daughter started coming home from preschool full of stories about her beloved Miss Emily.
"Miss Emily said... Miss Emily does... Miss Emily likes..."
For the first time, my daughter was developing a relationship with someone I barely knew. It was impossible to ignore the impact that gifted woman was having on my normally shy little girl.
Not all teachers are saints, of course. Every group has its outliers.
A lot of us, though, can name at least one teacher who saw the flame in us before we felt the spark. So often, these are the tales of heroes. One of my favorite ways to engage strangers in conversation is to ask them to tell me a story about one of their favorite teachers. Almost always, their faces soften and their eyes shift to focus on someone only they can see as they describe the one person who refused to give up on them.
"God, I was unlovable at that age," a 50-year-old lawyer told me recently as he talked about his seventh-grade English teacher. "Acting out every chance I got. But she saw something in me that my own mother couldn't see at the time. She used to call me 'professor' because she thought I was so smart. Imagine saying that to a pimply-faced kid whose dad worked at the rubber plant."
By the end of that school year, he knew he'd go to law school someday. He laughed when he described his teacher's response to that little announcement. "She just smiled and said, 'Of course you are.'"
I almost made it to the end of this column without naming the teachers from my own past whose faces and influence are as clear to me today as they were decades ago. In their eyes I saw a better version of myself. How do you even begin to thank someone who lifted your chin, pointed up and said, "Why not set your sights there instead?"
"Silent gratitude isn't much use to anyone," the late novelist G.B. Stern once said.
So I say their names out loud as I type: Mrs. Berendt, Miss Nelson, Mr. Kurnava, Mr. Carr, Mr. Allshouse and Mr. Petros.
Here's to them and to teachers like them, who mine for miracles and spackle our children's skies with stars.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an essayist for Parade magazine. To find out more about Connie Schultz (firstname.lastname@example.org) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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