Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Someone Who Made A Difference

Teaching has infinite rewards.

At the end of my grandfather's memorial service, my mother, my father, my sister and I stood in a receiving line to accept condolences.  Most of the people who hugged us and shook our hands we knew well, many recalling stories of my grandpa and recounting what an amazing man he had been.  As the line thinned, a man in his late sixties slowly walked up to my mother, his face etched with sadness.  None of us recognized him, but we could see that my grandfather's death had profoundly affected him in some way.  As he shook my mother's hand he said, "You don't know me, but when I read about Mr. Mayfield's passing, I had to come and pay my respects. That man changed my life and I wouldn't be here today if it were not for him."

He had driven several hours to attend the funeral of his high school science teacher and coach, fifty years after having been his student. Fifty years! It's such a long time to have held someone you never saw again in such high regard.  The man related to us that as a teenager he had been troubled and in trouble and that my grandfather took an interest in his well-being.  He recalled vividly one day when my grandpa took him aside and basically laid out what would happen to the young man if he did not straighten up and begin taking life seriously.  He had also reassured the boy that he was valuable and worthwhile and deserved to have good things in his life and therefore needed to work towards success. The attention my grandfather showed him as well as this particular conversation stayed with this man for his entire life, and he credited my grandpa with putting him on the right track and changing his view of himself and his abilities forever.  Because my grandfather had "saved" his life, he owed it to him to say goodbye and he told my mother that it had been a privilege to know my grandfather.

I could help but cry at his story.  I cried in acknowledgement that I would miss my grandfather forever as well as knowing that he would be immortal through the lives he had touched.  My family knew how amazing my grandfather had been. They knew the obstacles he had overcome to develop into a strong, moral, kind and productive man.  Being young as I was, I hadn't realized that he had touched so many more lives than my own, and he had touched them so deeply as to leave life-long impressions.  In that moment, I knew that being a teacher, regardless of its hardships and difficulties and lack of respect, was a career that had  infinite rewards.

It is a privilege to be an educator. It is not a career that comes with wealth, prestige, or even respect, but it is still a gift to be able to influence, to shape, and to develop young minds. Not everyone is given the opportunity to touch the lives of so many in good and positive ways.  It is a powerful position, even though society often does not recognize it as such., and with great power comes great responsibility.  The good teachers realize this, and like my grandfather, they strive everyday to do what is right and best for each student that crosses their paths.  They understand the ripple effect of their actions, recognizing that what they do and say can last a lifetime for some students. They know that they may not ever see the flowers bloom from the seeds they planted, and they accept the fact that the rewards of teaching aren't immediate or even consistent. Yet they persevere anyway, connected to the big picture, the long duration of time--knowing that in some way, somewhere along the line they will have made a difference in the lives of their kids.

The lucky educators hear a thank you now and then, they may get flowers on Teacher Appreciation Day, or acknowledgement from administrators and professional organizations for a job well done.  Mostly, however, the true rewards come when they get to see the fruit of their labors in young people who go on to college, to build careers and families, and to live happy lives.  Teaching is not a job meant for just anyone.  It takes a special person to realize there are things more important than monetary gain or social prestige or hearing thank you.  I count myself as one of the privileged and the lucky to have chosen a career in education.  It is something I have never regretted and I can only hope that when my memorial service happens many, many years from now that I am remembered as my grandfather was remembered--someone who made a difference.

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