A story I read today made me once again think about the incredible value a good teacher brings to the life of a child. And whether that teacher is a parent, a relative, an academic, coach or recreator, teachers are the lifeblood of growing up healthy and strong. And quite often we don’t recognize the value they bring at any particular moment, but in hindsight realize that we would be much less of a whole person without the force of their influence behind us.
Today one of my former students recounted a conversation she had with her 11 year old daughter who maintained with strong conviction that she would not engage in sexual activity until she was married. Easy to say at 11 years old, harder to uphold when you are sixteen and “in love”. She maintained that if a boy pressured her for sex she would simply break off the relationship. Again easy to say when you are eleven and have not yet found “the love of your life”. You could tell her mother was very happy that her daughter felt free to talk openly about that subject with her. And, in a very gentle way her mother lovingly reminded her that when the day comes (and it will come) that she has to make a decision regarding having sex, she hoped she remembered the unwavering conviction she felt at 11 years of age regarding waiting until marriage.
This is definitely one of those critical moments in a child’s life where they turn to someone they trust not only to express their views but to get validation for something that could be embarrassing or difficult to discuss. You only hope in these cases that they turn to someone who cares about them, someone who has their best interests at heart. In this case, she turned to her mother. In another she may turn to someone else but whoever assumes that role of “teacher” has the same responsibility – to recognize the significance of the situation and to care for the welfare and the well being of that child.
When I initially got into teaching I never realized the enormity of that responsibility. I taught theatre and dance in after school programs and mistakenly believed that’s what I was primarily doing. Along the way I found out that even though those disciplines were the “carrot” that got kids into my classes on a day-to-day basis, the real reason they continued to come was the interaction they had with a caring adult who was not their parent. And I learned that lesson in quite a unique way.
As part of my after school theatre program, I would organize field trips to other recreation centers that had similar programs so that my students could see plays performed by other kids their age. We would arrange an evening out that consisted of going out to dinner, seeing the play and then discussing what we saw on the ride home. I would try to do this at least once each season and each time it was an experience that the students looked forward to with great anticipation.
It was during one of those pre-show dinners that I finally understood my role as a teacher. About five girls and myself were eating and just having pleasant conversation when all of a sudden one of them turned to me and said, “do boys have periods like girls have periods?” There was complete silence at the table. And I will never forget the first thought that came into my mind – “ok, now where is this in my job description?” I was initially taken aback. But luckily I then felt honored that she came to me and and that she felt she could trust me not laugh at her or embarrass her but give her a straightforward caring answer, which I attempted to do. And I knew it was not only on her mind, but on the mind of all the other girls sitting at the table as well. What power, what influence an adult has at that moment. I was blown away.
And over the years that one moment stuck with me as time and time again my students would come to me and share sensitive information or ask me sensitive questions. And more and more they began to do so. And more and more I was glad they came to me. And over time, I began to realize the enormity of the responsibility each and every teacher has, and it mostly has nothing to do with their chosen discipline. Teachers have the power to save lives, change lives, to create hope and to inspire. They can be the pivotal make or break influence in a child’s life, an important thing to recognize and remember.
So I congratulate my former student for performing the role of a good teacher impeccably with sensitivity and caring. And I thank all of my former students for their faith in me as their teacher when they were growing up. I know it made me a better human being and I hope it did the same for them.