Monday, November 22, 2010

What are your accomplishments worth?

As a young person, I had dreams of grandeur for various professional careers. They changed as often as the wind, with no particular rhyme or reason. I wanted to be a famous actress, a famous writer, and an exceptional doctor who could save lives through groundbreaking procedures. I entertained the idea of being an engineer with the ability to build the ultimate machine that would allow humans to travel back in time. I wanted to find a cure for cancer, to be an accomplished painter, a violin player like my cousin, and even a gypsy vendor for a day so I could sell and eat all the sunflowers I wanted. The sky was the limit, but I always returned to my favorite game, playing teacher with my childhood friends.

If you ask me if my wild dreams came true, the answer is no. Did I continue playing teacher for almost thirty years, the answer is yes. Was it really a play? It might as well have been because I enjoyed teaching so much. Time flew, springs turned into winters, scores of wonderful students kept me young, challenged me in so many ways, and gave me the purpose to leave a small imprint into their futures. As a famous person said, teachers touch the future.

It was not easy being conservative among liberal colleagues. I had a few friends I cherished and even fewer who could truly understand where I came from and what education was like under communist regimes. We were mostly collegial and pretended to like one another.

One particular teacher stood out, she was brash, entertaining, and the darling of the teacher's union. She attended most conferences that the rest of us only dreamed of and was the automatic recipient of any award that a teacher could earn in their careers. By the end of her life, she had walls of "I love myself plaques" and ribbons given by various organizations under educational auspices.

After her funeral, her children put the house up for sale and personal belongings were disposed of or sold. To my surprise, there was a large barrel outside the house, on the curb, heaving full of my former colleague's awards, diplomas, and trophies.

I realized then with sadness that we are a mere blip in educational history, immediately forgotten after we pass on even by our very own children. I shed a tear for her devotion to her students and her children, devotion that ended in a trash bin. I am glad, she did not know how little these people really cared about her effort to make them understand that knowledge is power, to bring light into the darkness of the mind.

When I retired, after having worked for twenty years for the same educational institution, the local liberal newspaper whose owners had a monopoly on all mass media, refused to print a small announcement of my retirement because my political views were known and diametrically opposed to their communist, Cuba loving, anti-American "values."

As Goethe is reputed to have said on his death bed, "Licht, mehr Licht," light more light, our duty as teachers was to brighten the minds of young and old alike. Have we succeeded? You be the judge. Personally, I still remember my middle school language and mathematics teachers. They left me with a life long love for language and for scientific reasoning. I can still see their faces, how they dressed, and their favorite expressions. They live on in my mind's eye.

I have wonderful memories of my students, our trips abroad, cultural stories, videos, and thousands of interesting and inspiring lessons and discussions we've had, but I am hard pressed to produce too many plaques and diplomas saying how wonderful of a teacher I was. They would not be worth much anyway if my children would throw them out with the garbage upon my departure from this world.

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