“Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man (humankind) a more clever devil.” – C.S. Lewis
Miss Cain’s first grade class was busy in a reading circle. Each child in the circle was to have his/her turn at a word in a workbook, one after the other. The teacher herself, in her green Celtic plaid dress, was sitting in a chair inside the ring of readers, listening carefully to each delivery. A girl in class had just finished her reading only to be followed by silence. Miss Cain had seen this before, too many times apparently. It was him again. There he was, staring out at the meadow he loved playing in just outside the classroom window. Before he realized it was his turn to read, BOOM! He suddenly felt a solid bump on his right knee from the edge of Miss Cain’s fist. “Alan, you’re daydreaming again! Pay attention!” It was her first year to teach. Probably all of 22 years old. I had a huge crush on her. After all, her short blonde silky, soft curled hair was cut in a chic fashion (It was 1966.) which bounced up and down like a slinky when she walked. My mom said Miss Cain had two wardrobes, one for the conservative school-look and one for her other life. She had steel blue eyes which matched her terrific smile. She reminded me a bit of a mix of Goldie Hawn and Kim Novak. Above all, she drove a fire-engine red, MG Midget Roadster convertible. What little guy wouldn’t be impressed? (I lived across the street, so she never offered me a lift home.)
I thought she was the cat’s meow. So, as you can imagine, it broke my heart when she called me out with a firm bop on my knee. Several times that year she and my mom had meetings about my daydreaming. It was a sign of things to come. They didn’t speak much of right-brained, artsy kids in the days of yore. She probably retired early because of me.
In most districts around here, the new school year is just kicking off. Skylar, my 2nd grade granddaughter, started school this past Wednesday. The kids are hopefully prepped and ready to tackle another year in the classroom. However, the educators have been prepping for awhile. There’s so much work done behind the scenes that nobody thinks about. An educator’s work is never done. I know all too well. My wife is a tutorial teacher. My oldest daughter is a teacher. My middle daughter has been a teacher. I have a slew of family on both sides who are teachers or school administrators, active and retired. Many, many of my friends are educators. And, do they have stories to tell!
Meet my salty, Aunt Grace Atherton.
She taught school for decades. She married my great-uncle Robert Atherton who was also a teacher. The two of them went on to be well-known school district administrators in east Texas, and the Dallas-Ft Worth area, back in the day. The two of them raised educators, spawning a second generation of teachers and administrators who made a difference. In fact, in Arlington, Texas, between Dallas and Ft Worth, there is an Atherton Elementary in honor of the couple. They were salt-of-the-earth types. He passed away in 1977. As for her, she always reminded me of our own personal Bette Davis with an unmatched persona. At 99 years old, she walked faster than I did. She was a firecracker, a get-it-done lady. I remember her email address was “grace-a-doer”. She passed away at the young age of 103. Sharp as a tack until the very end. They LOVED teaching. Moreover, they LOVED the kids under them. Love matters!
It may be in the genes. I, too, was a teacher for a broadcasting school in the mid 80’s, then trained many in voice-work, music vocalization and mentored air-staff during my radio years. Loved every minute of it.
Please, allow me a moment here. Stay with me on this and see if you recognize someone in your life.
Meet the Irish Rose, Peggy O’Neill. Choral director, music theory, piano and guitar teacher.
She looks so calm in this old photo. To this day, she will tell you, when I walked into her choir room, with a chip on my shoulder in 8th grade, she knew I was trouble from the start. It was my first year in the area. I had come from a tough Jr. High school where it was the norm for race riots to breed gang warfare. I think she saw me as a special challenge. No doubt, she was on target. Affectionately known as P.O., she did challenge me in a myriad of ways. Later that year, she had me doing solo work, MC work, stand-up comedy, as well as guitar lessons. She knew exactly how to keep me perking. It wasn’t long when I wanted to excel just to make her proud…or because of the sheer fear of her Irish-red-faced wrath. Unexpectedly, I became her #1 tenor in choir. She must’ve loved me because she followed me to high school, the following year, where she became part of the choral directorial staff. We still laugh about that. She and I remain friends to this day.
Meet Ted Polk, the man, the maestro, the legend.
T.P. is how we lovingly refer to him. He was so many things to me during my high school years, but officially he was the top choral director and chief of the choral department. There were five choirs total in the school of 3,500 kids. He had a tender way of leading. He taught music, but more than that, he instructed us in life. Through my four years with him, I believe he gave some commentary on the lyric of every piece performed. Rightly so, he made sure us music lovers didn’t just jam to the compositions, but rather knew the meaning of the lyrics and the composer from which they came. He ushered us into giving each lyric value, not in just musical mathematical mechanics, but also the soul of the phrase. Under him, I learned how to be more than just a singer and sight-reader, but an artist. Craftily, he used his faith and philosophy as he directed rehearsals. He lived what he believed and shared it openly.
I recall a couple of times how T. P. warned us not to get so absorbed in the workforce after school hours. Gently, his message was how work will always consume your adult life, so free-up those precious days of youth before they fade into history. The care and the encouragement for each of us was so apparent, available and tangible. His door was always open and I took advantage of it many times, even after graduation. He recognized talent and knew how to grow it, mold it and give it wings. That’s what he did for me. I could write a novel about this man. He later would become the district’s Fine Arts Director over all the schools in our Dallas suburb. Even today there is a middle school which bears his name. When he died suddenly, a few years later, thousands of us mourned and still do. You will never find me ashamed to say: I am the man I am today because our paths intersected in my early teen years. Thank God!
Meet the lovely Anel Ryan.
Anel, among other things, was a theater teacher. It was her first full year to teach when I was a senior in high school. I was a singer, not an actor…or so I thought. My choice was not to take theater. All my electives that year had to do with music and voice. When I won the male leading role in the musical production that year, Anel took me under her wing. She was/is a super talented actress and director. Somehow she saw some seed in me beyond singing and stage presence. She basically tutored me in and outside school hours with a catch-up acting course, complete with character retention exercises, as well as proper blocking and stage etiquette and disciplines. It was all so foreign to me, but she pulled out the results she was looking for. If not for her direction, her challenging this boy and her Job-like patience, I know my performance would have been lacking. That May, Anel wrote the following in my yearbook, “I’ll be watching your life.” Oh, my! I can’t tell you how that small sentence turned my core several times during the days of adulthood. Afterwards the acting bug stuck!
The following decades were filled with lots of stage and video characters taken, plays written and a couple of thousand pages of script as a voice actor. There were times she agreed to critique me privately for role development after high school, as well. Years later, the tables were turned. One year, while casting my next radio theater project, I asked Anel if she would tackle a tough role for me. Even though she was living over 160 miles away, she was happy to do it. She’s one of my heroes in this life. I love her dearly.
Stay with me. There’s a method to my madness.
Meet the engaging Eric Bowman.
This comes from a humorous newspaper photo as he was pretending to be a student. Like Anel, Eric was an alumni of our high school. We used to poke at him while we sang
the “Welcome Back, Kotter” theme song when he walked into the classroom. Do you remember it? Are you singing the first line? Me too. He taught Government and Civics. His talented style drew the students in with analogies along with side stories of humor. I dreaded the class until I discovered his brand of teaching. He got on our street level to help us understand and respect the due process of law, voting and the systems of civic, state and federal government. I loved his class, as most did. When I was chosen to be on a jury for an armed robbery, right after the year I graduated, I couldn’t wait to go back to tell him of my experience. He soaked in all of my verbal waterfall describing my jury duty, including my youthful, wide-eyed exuberance. He grinned from ear to ear listening intently. He was excited to see my excitement. He followed it up by asking what I learned from it. He was always finding ways to stretch our minds. I am so glad I visited that day. He died in a car crash about a year later.
And then there’s an education of another kind. Often it can be just as relevant as math or science.
Meet the champ! Demetrius “The Greek” Havanas.
He was simply known to his students and friends as “Greek”. Greek was my Kickboxing and Tae-Kwon-Do trainer. He was a world renown, blue-collar martial arts instructor and world contender in both standard tournaments as well as full-contact bouts. It would take about four pages to list all of his titles and accomplishments. (I suggest a Google tap and/or a YouTube viewing.) With his professional teaching techniques, he created national and international champions. This was my life outside of school and church. While being trained by Greek, he kept me and three or four of my high school mates off the streets and among quality….well, okay, semi-quality competitors.
Channeling certain energies of youth can be a very good thing for the community at large. He knew the ends and outs of protecting yourself in street fights, or in the ring. He taught us endurance,physically and emotionally. He taught us how to respect other athletes studying other styles that were different from our circles. By just hanging around him we learned much about respecting other races, creeds and cultures. This boy really needed it at the time. He taught cool-headed, rewarding confidence which gang members often avoid. To this very day, 40+ years later, I deal with pain like a fighter in a competitor’s bout. His training opened our eyes to endure. He instructed in the knowledge of absorbing pain, struggle and fatigue while never giving up. Under his training you either were toughened to the hilt, or you dropped out to join a chess club. Case in point: Last December, when they opened me up for a quadruple bypass, the cardiac surgeon told me I had old bruising on my chest plate, like a tattoo. I smiled, knowing whose footprint branded its mark there. He lost his life in a plane crash in July of 1981. The who’s-who of the martial arts world came to his memorial service, including Chuck Norris, who couldn’t even get in the building due to overflow, standing outside on the steps for the duration. Through my tears I thanked him for coming.
People building people. Constructionists building society. C.S. Lewis was right. Education alone will not bring inner peace or enlightenment. It’s such a misconception not often determined through the lens of study. The turnip will not be squeezed. Virtues and attributes like ethics, faith and love will not drip out of degrees and diplomas. Stellar core values often are discovered in individuals who never finished school, or cracked open curriculum from higher learning institutions. Educators worth their salt know this, accept it and adhere to it.
Great educators produce great educators. The evidence is all around us. Common denominators seem to include: passion stirred with compassion, intuitiveness and love. It matters!
The debates rage concerning unions and non-unions, private or public schools, home schooling or the little rural frame building out in the woods with an old school bell. The rub will most likely continue. However, if you’re an educator of the heart, you’re enriched already through a higher calling.
May this new school year grant you wisdom beyond your degree, beyond your training, beyond your studies. May your goals be worthy and focused. May the care for the kids be authentic, full of grace and discernment. May you and your classroom be well protected from evil. May it be a sacred, honored and loving place. May you be comforted when you burn the midnight oil only to rise up early the following morning. May you discover new loves this year that will ink themselves on your heart during your coming days of rest. Most of all, know that your very fingerprints will remain on their hearts and minds for decades to come.
Miss Cain, wherever you are…here’s to ya!
Remind yourself each day that many may write about you long after you are gone, maybe some 40-50 years from today. When wrapped in the thought, you might just find more fuel for the race.
“My friends, we should not all try to become teachers. In fact, teachers will be judged more strictly than others.” – James 3:1 (Contemporary English Version)