Friday, December 19, 2008

On Building Living Cathedrals

I read something really amazing today about motherhood and how moms are in the business of building cathedrals. But what I really want to talk about today is how teachers also build cathedrals. Yes, parents are the primary shapers in their children's lives, but teachers have a huge impact that cannot be ignored.

Recently, I've been tracking down the history of my life to prove to the United States consulate in Vancouver that I qualify to have my child be a United States' citizen once he arrives, though he will not be born stateside. Taking the advice of a friend, I've actually gone above and beyond what basics are required and have tracked down my history all the way down to Kindergarten transcripts. No kidding.

Yesterday, when I crossed the border, I picked up an envelope from the school where I attended grades 6-8. It was a little private school in Indiana. The report cards not only recorded my academic grades, but they included marks on my character and behavior, pages completed in independent reading, and the usual attendance numbers.

While my sixth grade year was fairly traumatic in the friendship department, including a lovely goose egg and black eye from a swinging purse with a metal frame wielded by a badly aiming girl who was supposedly gunning for the boy next to me, my grades and all marks were stellar. From my report card, one would never know how many nights I was up with stress induced stomach aches. I remember how our teacher read the Hobbit aloud, and how she lent me her sweater and comb when I came in completely drenched one day from the short run in the pouring rain from my mom's van to the school door. It was a tough year, but I made mostly A's for academics and C's for character (C equalled Consistently Commendable).

The reports from my seventh and eighth grade years spent up in the junior high loft hint at some of the challenges I was facing. My grades from all the teachers in the subjects of home-ec, music, art, physical education, English, and a few other things were still all A's in academics and C's in character. My seventh grade year also showed nearly perfect scores in history/social studies from the teacher I had that year. But my seventh and eighth grade years showed less than stellar scores in math and science, and my eighth grade year history score tanked both academically and character-wise. Why? And what was the end result?

Well, my math and science teacher had a thing for valuing boys above girls, and he was more changeable and unpredictable than the weather. I never knew when he was going to be kind or when he was going to impatient with me. Instead of helping me learn in a gentle and scientific manner how to not be grossed out by dead animals we needed to disect, he took a more direct and traumatic approach. He literally threw the dead and pregnant perch at me, thinking that would get me to not hesitate in touching it. Instead, it simply turned me off to all seafood for over 10 years. The main message I learned from him was that girls, especially me, were not made to be mathematicians or scientists, and that we really had no business earning more than an average or passable grade in those courses. I believed that until I began teaching and discovered that math and science were actually fun. But by then, it was too late to go back and redo all the basic courses I would need. Sure, I tried to go back, but when you're 22, it's hard to go back and start fresh in seventh grade algebra. To this day, I have plans to work through a comprehensive math book hidden behind all my other books on one of our shelves in our living room. And my scientist/chemist dad never got to see his daughter excel in science, though he spent hours with me working on re-enacting Edison's lightbulb invention and paying for tutoring. All because I stubbornly believed a misguided teacher named Mr. P.

I don't quite know why my history grade tanked in Mr. G's eighth grade class, but I am quite certain that his assessment of my character was very wrong. What I do remember is that he really didn't spend time loving his students, investing in their lives by inspiring them to great things. Instead, I remember off-topic sermons and rants, his attempts at garnering attention by goofing off and trying to be humorous (but never allowing that in his students), and a basic lack of knowledge about how to be gentle with impressionable girls. From him I gained the message that true historians were males, and any success or love of history I had experienced before was simply a fluke.

It was at that time that I began to box myself into a tiny container where I allowed myself only to be good in a few things related to English. I stopped challenging myself, stopped learning how to have a study ethic in things that no longer came naturally for me, and stopped being consistently diligent. I believed that I was not smart, not deserving of high achievement, and incapable of excelling in what I now considered subjects for boys. And even though we moved to another state before my ninth grade year, I continued to tell myself those messages, and continued to interpret those messages from my future teachers (whether or not they actually communicated them).

My point is this: Teachers and their words and actions matter more than they realize. Teachers have more power than they know in shaping a child for life. Teachers have incredible power both in the spoken and unspoken, in the clearly spelled out and the merely assumed. Teachers have the ability to build a gorgeous and sprawling cathedral capable of standing through wars and storms and years. And teachers also have the ability to build a cathedral made out of hay and stubble that will collapse at the first sign of a breeze.

When I look back on my own teaching career, I see the times I built stunningly beautiful and strong cathedrals. But I also see the times when I wounded a child's heart, misguided them in their thinking (or in the mathematical order of operations as is the case of my first year of teaching), or taught them to put themselves into a box. My successes are great and all, but it's my failures that makes me wish I could go back and do things over for the sake of those precious souls I didn't properly nurture or appreciate.

I don't know if Mr. P and Mr. G have regrets, or if they are still contentedly resting on their legalistic and insensitive philosophies. But I do know that they practically knocked down this cathedral that God designed in His image. Thank goodness He didn't let them totally destroy it. And thank goodness it takes more than 34 years to complete a cathedral. There's still hope for me.

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