The notes about my father weren’t about test scores and college admission. They were about the universal aim of human flourishing. His former students flourished in their lives not because of my father’s compassion, but because of his inspiration.
My father passed away a few weeks ago. He had spent his entire working life teaching junior high and high school students. Most communities in our country possess a few teachers of my father’s ilk, educators who are considered local celebrities—the type who can rarely enter a restaurant or movie theatre without encountering at least a smattering of former students or thankful parents.
Often, teacher-celebrities teach for decades. They oversee successful academic, athletic, or artistic programs. They might even win a teaching award or two. But most of all, they are fondly remembered by their former students. They hear superlatives like, “You made a real difference in my life” or “I wouldn’t be where I am today without you.” They are localized versions of Jaime Escalante or non-fiction avatars of John Keating.
Still, I was overwhelmed by the volume of notes, e-mails, and letters I received from his former students, all painting a similar picture of my father: he was a tough teacher, a bit intimidating at first, but ultimately a man who helped generations of young people find their own paths in life. The letters were filled with powerful and colorful testimonials about his unwavering sense of purpose and ubiquitous passion.
One of the letters I received was from a former student who became both an ER doctor and an award-winning medical school instructor. Looking back on my father 35 years later, this is what he had to say:
Only through the natural course of time have I come to appreciate how he engaged his classroom, how he mastered the material he taught, and how he truly cared about his students. I now see his wisdom, humor, and devotion to his craft with a clarity I lacked at the time. His “tough love” approach, which seemed personal, mean, and unbearable at times to my immature 14-year-old brain, was exactly the inspiration and motivation I needed to push me to reach for my potential.
Here was a man who ardently believed in the Socratic method of teaching, walking up and down rows of desks, never allowing anyone to hide in a classroom crevice or sulk with proud indifference. Students eventually came to understand that his affection for them was intimately tied to his belief in their capacity to learn and achieve. After all, a good teacher doesn’t tolerate student ignorance or indifference.
And yet, my father would probably be appalled to learn that the Socratic method is woefully out of step with a generation of young people who find feelings—not facts, evidence, or knowledge—to be sovereign. Challenging a young person to defend the material they devour on TikTok, Instagram, or Twitter—and doing so in front of the entire class, mind you—would probably land him in a bit of hot water these days. Administrators would demand to know the learning objective to which his questioning was tied. Parents would complain about how “uncomfortable” their son or daughter now felt. Fellow teachers would counsel him, “Be careful. Let them think whatever they want to think.”
He never let students chew gum or even wear hats in class because a classroom is a serious place and serious places demand respectful behavior. If you were in his second period class (home room) you learned the proper cadence of the Pledge of Allegiance. “There is no comma after ‘nation’ and before ‘under God,’” he thundered at successive generations. He always respected those who didn’t say the Pledge for religious reasons but would probably be aghast at the blasé, nondescript platitudes offered up by modern students who can rarely articulate concrete reasons for sitting during the national anthem beyond avant-garde pieties about generalized “oppression” or “white supremacy.”
He taught short stories, essays, plays, and poetry if they were instructive about the human condition; he had too much regard for the transformative power of literature to ever use it as a political cudgel with which to insist upon different forms of “representation.” He never judged literature through a postmodern kaleidoscope of race, gender, or class.