Monday, January 22, 2007

Memory and/or Influence

While memory is a wonderful gift and one I am very thankful for, a memory is not necesarily proof of truth. Just ask any two people, who were in attendance at any given event, what each one remembers about the event. While they may agree on some obvious aspects of the event, you can be sure that each one will remember some part of the occasion differently than it is remembered by the other participants or spectators. I suppose that the reason for this is that each of us experiences any event in the light of our previous life experience and with a view to our own special concerns and interests. Our emotions and feelings also color the experience and influence our memories of it.

My brother, who writes Alone on a Limb, wrote yesterday about meeting former students of his (in the mall or around town) years after they were in his class. He commented in that post:

"Mr. Shaw! Do you remember me?!" It happens often -- in the mall, Circuit City, Home Depot, at Kroger. I don't know the fellow shopper/sports fan/fair goer from Adam (or Eve). I've finally reached the point in life that I usually just fess up: "You look mighty familiar -- remind me of your name." I taught him or her twenty or ten or thirty years ago. We catch up for a minute or two and then she asks: "What was that great book you read about those runaway kids?" (The Lion's Paw by Robb White) or "Can you still recite 'Jabberwocky'?" (by Lewis Carroll). I love it. They may not remember the lessons but they remember The Lion's Paw and "Jabberwocky".

I commented to him that his former students likely remember much more from his classes than those two things. I continued thinking about that comment after I moved on, and I realized that I hadn't written what I was really thinking about students' "memories" of their teachers.

His former students probably don't have a conscious "memory" of the best benefits they received from being in his classes. They no doubt left his class with more appreciation for literature and reading, although they may not realize it or even know where they acquired the appreciation.

They certainly left his class knowing that there are loving, sensitive, truly GOOD men who are all those things and still "manly" men. Many children live in environments that don't offer many examples of that phenomenum. They left this excellent teacher's class having seen a daily, living model of tolerance, appreciation for diversity, and true concern and love for fellow humans. This example has helped them grow into more tolerant, loving adults, although the roots for those qualities were planted without their conscious "memory" of the event.

These former students heard frequent boisterous laughter from a teacher who obviously enjoys life and loves each of his students as a father loves his children. In so doing, they probably got the message that although school may not always be fun, LEARNING is fun. They may have even gotten the impression that good clean fun is the best fun of all. Perhaps they came to the realization that most teachers are good adults who appreciate and enjoy the company, the individualities and the accomplishments of children.

Because of his high expectations of their academic achievement, they probably learned that true enjoyment and real "self-esteem" comes from attempting a hard task and accomplishing it. They may have grown into responsible workers in society because they know how to work at a task until it is completed well. They also learned that some adults will work with you as long as it takes to conquer a hard concept or skill and will sincerely rejoice with you as you make progress. Just maybe they have developed those affirming and supporting habits as adults because they saw the positive effect of those character traits.

Do you think those former students "remember" these things specifically? Probably not; but we are all the sum total of our experiences and the contacts we have had with other people in our lives, and they experienced those qualities consistently for one year of their impressionable childhoods.

An analogy that has always been encouraging to me during the long school weeks between Christmas and Spring Break each year is this: "I may not remember what I ate for dinner the second Tuesday of last month, but it fed me for the time. It nourished me and gave me the strength and health to accomplish what I have accomplished since that time. Likewise, I may not have a "memory" of those words, actions, thoughts, philosophies, experiences, examples, relationships, etc. that fed my spirit the second Tuesday of last month, but they nourished my spirit for the time and helped to make my character and personality strong and healthy to do what needs to be done now." The food I ingested (physical or spiritual) nourished me whether I remember it or not.

This thought is a challenge to me as a teacher, parent, grandparent and friend. I try to make sure that the words and actions those around me see and hear are words and actions that will nourish their spirits. This thought should also be a challenge to us to surround ourselves with nourishing people, thoughts, and words just as we try to eat nourishing food so that both our bodies and our spirits will grow strong and robust.

It is for these reasons that we rejoice when our children get good teachers. A "good" teacher is not just one who knows his/her subject matter and can teach it to children. A good teacher is also one who guides children by example to become good, happy, and productive citizens. "Good" teachers nourish a child's spirit, personality, and character as they teach them subject matter.

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