I wonder how many public school teachers out there hit that place where they realize that the best teaching isn’t teaching. It’s a canvas or a novel or a mural or whatever. God, I love teaching. Seriously. But sometimes I wonder if it’s the best venue. I wonder if what I really love is mentoring and writing. I wonder if maybe I’m wasting too much time in a system so hell-bent on test prep when what I want to do is tell a story or paint a picture or meet one-on-one with someone whose life is falling apart.
Track with me. I promise. I’m getting to a point. Maybe.
I met with a kid named Johnny from fifth grade through early college. LIfe got busy for both of us, but we never quit thinking and praying for each other and meeting whenever we could. I’ve watched him graduate college and own a home and live out a dream that he was barely able to articulate back when he was a travieso in the fifth grade.
He sent me a message on Facebook that led me to tears.
In this note, he wrote, “I miss you and also wanted to say thank you for making a huge effect in my life. I greatly appreciate everything you have done for me. You’re a one of a kind person and I just wanted to take this time to tell you that. People wait until someone dies to say, ‘thanks for what you did.’ I want to tell you right now: THANK YOU! May god (I’m not sure he can be a proper noun yet) bless you and your beautiful family. Thanks for always being there for me when times were hard and you stuck with me through it all. I love you man and I hope we can hang soon. I haven’t forgotten about the stranger who made such a major impact in my.”
I could have written him that same letter . . . but I was too scared, I guess. And here’s the thing: his sentiments can’t be measured in a test. And neither can the fact that he saved me from suburbia. I re-read that message over and over again with tears in my eyes. I can’t say that I’ve had the same impact on my students and here’s why:
We shot baskets late enough that he wasn’t able to finish his homework. We played nine-ball and eight ball at the Y. We went skiing with a large group. We laughed. We read books together. And through that play, we shared our lives. We both had a chance to be vulnerable. We both grew. I am a different man because of his story and he is a different man because of me.
I can’t do that as a teacher. I have to wear a tie. I have to go by Mr. Spencer. I have to be professional. I have to graph data. I’m in charge. I have to teach linear equations. I can have an impact, but it is impact minus play and as such it is anemic at best.
I used to eat carne asada at his home. He ate tater tot casserole at my home. We knew each other on a relational level. I was never Mr. Spencer. I was always John. The awkward, jeans and t-shirt, intellectual guy who wanted so badly for him to succeed – not just academically, but in life. And he was always Johnny, that kid who trusted me enough to share his life with me and who radically transformed my life.
I think professional educators have a hard time believing in mentoring because we are told to be distant. There are so many liabilities – mostly to avoid being sued. And maybe that’s for the best. But I know this much: the greatest impact I ever had as a teacher was when I wasn’t a teacher. I’m not sure what to do with that, either.
Johnny and I played and as a result, neither of us is the same.
I’m not sure what the vision of education should be in the future. But I know this much: it has to be a relationship and that relationship has to include play.