“I didn’t call myself anything. I was more than a teacher. And less. In the high school classroom you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown, a counselor, a dress-code enforcer, a conductor, an apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a politician, a therapist, a fool, a traffic cop, a priest, a mother – father – brother – sister – uncle – aunt, a bookkeeper, a critic, a psychologist, the last straw.” Teacher Man, Frank McCourt
This past weekend would have been my father’s 90th birthday. My wife, daughter, and I had a hermit and some pistachio ice cream to celebrate (his favorites). After dinner, I sat at my desk and read through the folder. The folder is what remains of the drawer.
I wrote about “the drawer” in one of my first posts. When Dad passed away in 2009, we helped my mother go through his bureau. For the most part it went as you would expect. The top drawer contained, among other trinkets, an assortment of extra buttons, cuff links, tie tacks and clips, and watches. The bottom drawer was full of folders containing important papers. There were drawers containing underwear, sweaters, and sweatshirts. But right in the middle was a drawer full of nearly 50 years’ worth of cards, letters, and yearbook photos with notes written on the back from former students – hundreds of yearbook photos.
They began with his first teaching job at a Catholic vocational technical school for boys in Boston in the late 50s and 60s, continued through his 30 years as a math teacher and coach at a suburban high school outside of Boston, all the way through the final ten years after retirement when he remained on as a driving instructor.
When my mother passed away in 2017, we discovered that she had reclaimed and repurposed the rest of the bureau but left that drawer as we had found it eight years earlier. We filled a folder with a sample of the memories and disposed of the rest. As I still do, I assume Mom liked to sit in his rocking chair and read through the notes from time to time.
What is a teacher?
I have written about how basketball and a selfless priest paved my father’s path from the shoe factory to the classroom, and I have written about the importance that he placed on the value of a good education. He could teach basketball, driving, and math with the best of them. Very few of the scraps of paper in the drawer, however, mentioned basketball, driving, or math.
Most of them expressed thoughts like these…
- “You taught me smiles are contagious. Thanks. I have found much more happiness and peace now. God bless you always.”
- “To a great person whom I respect and admire dearly. Thank you for being so nice and understanding to me. I appreciate it greatly. I wish there were more people like you. You are a great asset to the school. I’ll never forget you.”
- “I learnt a lot not only about driving, but about using your head in all kinds of situations. Keep giving the great suggestions and jokes. Thanks for everything. You are one of a kind.”
- “Thank you for all the friendly hellos …”
- “…And thank you for believing in me.”
- “To ‘D’ the nicest, strangest teacher I ever had. It has been an experience to know you. Thanks. “
There were letters from parents of students with special needs thanking him for his patience and all the extra hours he spent teaching their son or daughter to drive until they were able to get their license.
There was the letter dated “18 Nov – 66” from a former student that began “I hope this letter will find both you and yours in the best of health. Well here I am in Viet Nam.” And the night five years (and so many soldiers) later when another former student showed up unexpectedly at our front door the night before he shipped out to Vietnam – after having been given the choice between prison and military service by a judge. I cannot think of any former teachers I would be reaching out to in either of those situations.
And from the next generation of teachers…
“Mr. Dee, We all love you, and you’re one of the few people we cry about when we leave. You’re my inspiration for teaching. I hope I’m half the teacher you are.”
Emerging from the disruptions of the pandemic we desperately need teachers who have command of their content, possess pedagogical content knowledge, and are adept at formative assessment processes and practices. But as noted in the quote from Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man at the top of this post (a book my father read several times in his final years); good teaching has always required so much more. Great teachers embrace it all, whatever the role requires for a particular moment in time and for a particular student. As my father wrote in a thank you/farewell letter to his closest colleagues upon his retirement in 1998 (a copy of which was in the drawer):
“And as for the wanna-bees, we are what we wanna be, Performers, One & All, who work 7 hrs a day and overtime for no pay. Our grease paint is chalk dust, marker dust, sweaty foreheads and pits and we love it.”
And as I noted in his eulogy, it was not by accident that his first and final graduating classes, more than a quarter century apart, dedicated their yearbooks to him.
My Dad, now there was a teacher, now there was a man.