Courage to Teach

pamandme.jpgWhen I was in seventh grade — that crucible of cruelty and change — I was fortunate enough to have Mrs. Franke as my language arts teacher. She was smart and kind, she loved literature, and she supported my dream of being a writer at a vital moment in my life. She recognized my love of language and story-telling, even through some pretty lame plot-lines. By the time I went to college, we’d lost touch, but I still kept with me an article she’d once sent me about girl-writers in novels.

Years later, floored by gratitude for a writing opportunity I’d just gotten, I wanted to pass on my thanks to Mrs. Franke. After some Googling, I found her and wrote her a long update. We started an e-mail correspondence, she visited me in New York, and when Chris and I landed in Austin last month, she and her family housed us while we looked for an apartment.

This weekend, we went to a local farmer’s market together to hear her son’s friend play in a steel drum band. After wandering through tents of handmade soap, hot sauce, and empanadas, we ran into two of her fellow teachers. Talking with the three of them, I learned that my random e-mail had reached Pam at a not-so-random moment. Four years ago, when I wrote her, she was at a crossroads. She’d reached burn-out; she was exhausted and wasn’t sure if she wanted to teach anymore.

She was also in the middle of a program called Courage to Teach, a year-long retreat series designed to renew the inner lives of teachers and other education professionals.

I’d never heard of this organization before, but after hearing Pam and her two friends talk about their experiences there, I am amazed and deeply grateful that it exists. It’s almost cliché to rant about the meager financial and emotional support that American teachers receive relative to their work’s importance, especially when discussing athletes’ salaries. It’s fantastic to know that there are people actually doing something to change that fact.

Run by the Center for Courage and Renewal, each Courage to Teach group gathers twenty to thirty educators who come together for three-day retreats, four times a year, over a one or two year period. The retreats follow a seasonal theme, which I love, especially the way they describe them on their website:

…the fall theme of “Seeds of True Self” provides a way to revisit the passion, experiences, gifts, or values that drew one into teaching in the first place… The winter retreat themes of darkness, dormancy, and death provide a context to talk about seasons of grief and loss in life and teaching. Spring offers the paradox of new life emerging from apparent dormancy, and summer is a time to reflect on fruition and abundance.

One element of the retreat is a Quaker-like meeting where participants sit in a circle and speak about questions they’re wrestling with. It turns out that I’d sent my e-mail shortly before the day that everyone was asked to bring a meaningful object to the circle. Pam brought my e-mail and read it aloud. She says that everyone in the circle was moved to tears and deeply encouraged, which nearly moved me to tears. The sky was steel gray on Saturday as we all talked, but I felt like we were standing in rich sunlight.

This weekend, I was given the rare gift that all of us hope for — the knowledge that our words made a difference to someone. It was especially poignant for me, because Pam had done the exact same thing for me fifteen years ago.

There’s no way I could have known that my words would have reached my dear teacher precisely at the moment that she needed to read them. I don’t know if I believe in literal, white-dress-wearing, haloed angels, but I do believe that each of us can act as angels or messengers for each other, consciously or accidentally. I’m pretty sure that I was lovingly “used by the Muse” (or the Universe in this case) to send a message to Pam four years ago, and I’m glad to have played that role.

I share this story not to boast, but to inspire. Maybe it’s time for you to find that educator who made a difference in your life. Go ahead and write that note or e-mail you’ve thought about for years, even if you feel a little silly. You have no idea how much he or she might need you to act as a messenger right this moment.

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Beauty in a Wicked World is a weekly column by Jennifer Gandin Le. It appears on Wednesdays.

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7 Comments

Filed under Beauty in a Wicked World, Career/Life, Education, Writing

7 responses to “Courage to Teach

  1. What a touching post — you and your teacher and lucky to have rediscovered each other!

  2. You certainly do inspire with this post, Jennifer. Thank you for reminding me to thank all those teachers who have made such a huge impact on who I am today.

    I’ve had a difficult time reaching some of them over the years… so I hope that my unwritten gratitude was still obvious to the teacher who taught me how to craft an argument at Cooper Middle School and to the teacher who made me fall in love with European History at Marquette High School. He had to work at a convenience store in addition to teaching in order to put his kids through college. He was an angel.

  3. Beautiful post Jennifer! One of my favorite things about being a published author was having the chance to thank my favorite elementary school and high school journalism teachers in my book. I hope they were similarly moved.
    And on a weird small world note, my yoga teacher today ended our practice saying, “Let’s all take the time to thank the teachers in our lives.”

  4. Molly

    Thank you Jennifer for bringing it back to the teachers!

    I recently reconnected with my highschool French teacher and my 8th grade science teacher. One turned me on to music in poetry and the other on to Diane Ackerman and the intersection of science and literature. My beloved highschool English teacher was the first to believe in my poetic scratchings and introduce me to “The Wellspring” by Sharon Olds. Little does she really know (though I’ve told her a lot) that her attention to my writing sent me catapulting towards literature.

  5. Very well written Jennifer. The contributions teachers make to our lives is often not acknowledged.

    After reading your post, I thought of so many of my teachers over the years who have helped me become the person I am today.

  6. Thank you guys so much for your comments on this post! Jessica, you’re very right — I’m so glad that we reconnected. There are other teachers who touched my life that I haven’t been able to find, but hopefully others will tell them how much they matter.

    Courtney, I love that you were able to thank your teachers in print. I’m sure that they are endlessly proud of you and touched by your gratitude. And your example of fantastic coincidence makes me smile.

    Cristina, these are beautiful tributes to the teaching angels that touched your life, especially the one who had two jobs. He must have had a huge heart to be able to work both jobs and still inspire his students.

    Molly, I love that your 8th grade science teacher introduced you to Diane Ackerman. I didn’t discover her until a few years ago. I’ll bet your awareness of the natural world has been so much more lush because of her words.

    And Seeker, I appreciate your kind comments. It really is amazing how deeply our teachers can shape our personalities, our sense of ourselves and our potential. Here’s to them all!

  7. Jennifer, I love this. I love that you were a light in her world when she needed it most, and she was the same for you. I love that what we think of as a one-sided relationship is actually beneficial and important to both parties. Teaching is so important and so damn hard, it’s really moments like getting your letter that make it worth it. When I drove cross country with my college boyfriend, we stopped by my elementary school in Tulsa, OK to see my third grade teacher, Sandra Brown. I was 20 years old, walked into the classroom, spotted her. She spotted me and said, “Kimmi Auerbach!” I couldn’t believe she remembered me and she was obviously thrilled I had remembered her. I think impact is important to acknowledge, it makes you feel like you matter, which we all want and need to feel. Thanks for much for sharing this and for encouraging people to thank their teachers!