I used to teach art in an elementary school, long ago and far away. The kids were crazy fun back then. There were the crayon-mashers, the booger-eaters, and even the occasional projectile-vomiters. By the end of any given school year, my students could draw the hexagons on a turtle’s shell, shade things in to make them look 3-D, and paint a tree that did not look like a lollipop. They were using their own creativity to find their way, and they were happy. You could see it in their faces.
Fast-forward twenty or thirty years. This evening I went to a friend’s retirement celebration. But it was more than that; it was an acknowledgement of her decades of commitment to teaching and helping and guiding untold numbers of children. Her own children were there with her–all grown up now with children of their own. They too are teachers. When they were little kids they used to come to my art class. One was very serious and polite and practical. The other was loud and precocious, with an infectious smile. I looked forward to seeing both of them each and every week.
Like all teachers do, when I look back at my career I see those living, breathing whirlwinds of energy not just as mile markers along the path my teaching career took, but as my reason for taking that route in the first place. As an art teacher, my students numbered in the thousands. I shaped them and they shaped me. And despite the occasional discontent (for them and
me), we all seemed to turn out okay.
The thing I noticed most about this evening’s get-together was how little the teachers had changed over all that time. For sure we had all aged; that’s a given. But the same love and warmth they had given to their students during their many years in the classroom still radiated from their faces. It’s as if their smiles had been placed in time capsules and pulled out immediately before the retirement celebration. Nothing seemed different, at least not the important stuff.
And as the evening drew to a close, and hugs and goodbyes were exchanged, along with laughter–always laughter, I drew back for a moment and tried to imagine what my life would have been like without those teachers in it… and without my students. And I realized what a dark, shallow place it would have been. Then I thought of their students, and their students, and how the future might look because of those exchanges, those relationships. And I saw how, despite my usual cynical outlook of this world, there could and would be generations of teachers, just like these folks, who would use their own creativity and love to help kids find their ways too. I was sure of this as I slowly looked around the room. I could see it in their faces.