Earlier today, a former student tweeted at me in honor of #ThankaTeacher day: “Thanks to @cakeypal for changing my life. More than once.” I understand at least part of what she means here; when she was an undergrad, I suggested she apply to be a tutor at our campus writing center. Before that point, she was steadily progressing towards a goal to become a secondary English teacher. But the job she got as a result of my suggestion changed her, leading to a decision to get an M.A. in composition theory, a job teaching first year writing as a grad student, and now a tenure track job at a community college.
Her tweet made me think about a teacher who changed my life: Mrs. Clark. I remember very little of her 9th grade English class. In fact, what I do recall is doing skill and drill exercises in a grammar book. Her class bored me silly–but I was shy and quiet, responsible about school, and not about to complain or act out. Somehow, Mrs. Clark saw my boredom. Instead of being offended or threatened by it, she recommended that I be moved to a more advanced English class where we studied literature and wrote and discussed ideas. I was still shy, and I sometimes felt less intelligent than my classmates who had been in these types of classes for months if not years. But in this class and those that followed it, I began to consider that my voracious reading might lead to a different future than the one I had imagined up to that point.
I’m grateful to Mrs. Clark for her willingness to intervene on my behalf. And today, as I reflect on her influence on my life, I think about how what we do as teachers isn’t just about content (although I believe that content matters a great deal). Teachers can choose to imagine the futures of their students, and find ways to help students discover, dream, and shape a life that engages with their academic and artistic passions.
I’m sure Mrs. Clark didn’t realize where her suggestion would lead, just as I had no idea how excited Andrea would become about composition theory. But today, I’m proud to stand with both Mrs. Clark and Andrea in the ranks of teachers who change lives.
Thank you Mrs. Clark and the visionaries who came after you: Mrs. Pat Stoddard, Dr. Roy Bird, Dr. Del Kehl, Dr. Judith Sensibar, and Dr. Cordelia Candelaria. Each of you influenced the trajectory of my professional life.