In last Thursday's edition of the New York Times, author and Brown University professor Marie Myung-Ok Lee published a beautiful note titled "What I Learned at School." I highly recommend it to your attention.
THE tumult over state budgets and collective bargaining rights for public employees has spilled over into resentment toward public school teachers, who are increasingly derided as “glorified baby sitters” whose pay exceeds the value of the work they do.
But how exactly do we measure the value of a teacher?
As a writer, I often receive feedback from readers I have never met. But the other day, I received a most unexpected message in response to one of my essays:
“I am so proud of you and all you have accomplished. I shared your opinion from The L.A. Times with my family and reminisced about you as my student at Hibbing High School.”
It was signed Margaret Leibfried, who was my English teacher — a teacher who appeared at a critical juncture in my life and helped me believe that I could become a writer.
Thirty years ago, in Hibbing, a town in northern Minnesota that is home to the world’s largest open-pit iron mine, I entered high school as a bookish introvert made all the more shy because I was the school’s only nonwhite student. I always felt in danger of being swept away by a sea of statuesque blond athletes. By 10th grade, I’d developed a Quasimodo-like posture and crabwise walk, hoping to escape being teased as a “brain” or a “chink,” and then finding being ignored almost equally painful. I spent a lot of time alone, reading and scribbling stories.
Ms. Leibfried taught American literature and composition grammar, which involved the usual — memorizing vocabulary and diagramming sentences — but also, thrillingly, reading novels.
Thrilling to me, that is. Many of my classmates expressed disdain for novels because they were “not real.” For once, I didn’t care what they thought. Ms. Leibfried seemed to notice my interest in both reading and writing, and she took the time to draw me out; she even offered reading suggestions, like one of her favorite novels, “The Bell Jar.”
That year’s big project was a book report, to be read aloud to the class. However, Ms. Leibfried took me aside and suggested I do something “a little different.” Instead of a report, I was to pick a passage from a book, memorize it and recite it in front of the class.
While I longed for the safety and routine of the report, I was curious how this new assignment might work out. By then obsessed with “The Bell Jar,” I chose a passage that I thought showed off the protagonist’s growing depression as well as Sylvia Plath’s sly humor.
The morning of the presentations, I remember my palms sweating so badly as I walked to the front of the class that I held my hands cupped in prayer formation, so I wouldn’t wipe them on my shirt.
I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes, and separating one box from another was sleep, like a black shade. Only for me, the long perspective of shades that set off one box from the next had suddenly snapped up, and I could see day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue.
It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next.
It made me tired just to think of it.
I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.
Dr. Gordon twiddled a silver pencil. "Your mother tells me you are upset."
I finished and, to my surprise, the class broke out in applause. “As a writer and a good reader, Marie has picked out a particularly sensitive piece of prose and delivered it beautifully,” Ms. Leibfried said, beaming. I felt, maybe for the first time, confident.
Ms. Leibfried was followed the next year by Mrs. Borman, quiet, elderly and almost as shy as I was. She surprised everyone when she excused me from her grammar class, saying my time would be spent more productively writing in the library. I took the work seriously, and on a whim submitted an essay I’d come up with to Seventeen Magazine. When they published it, it was big news for the high school — it was even announced on the P.A. system. Mrs. Borman wasn’t mentioned, nor did she ever take any credit; in her mind she was just doing her job.
I can now appreciate how much courage it must have taken for those teachers to let me deviate so broadly from the lesson plan. With today’s pressure on teachers to “teach to the test,” I wonder if any would or could take the time to coax out the potential in a single, shy student.
If we want to understand how much teachers are worth, we should remember how much we were formed by our own schooldays. Good teaching helps make productive and fully realized adults — a result that won’t show up in each semester’s test scores and statistics.
That’s easy to forget, as budget battles rage and teacher performance is viewed through the cold metrics of the balance sheet. While the love of literature and confidence I gained from Ms. Leibfried’s class shaped my career and my life, after only four short years at Hibbing High School, she was laid off because of budget cuts, and never taught again.
To those whose school years are far gone, have you reached out to thank the women and men whose instruction prepared you for your own careers, even inspired you to pursue the life you lead today?
And to those whose school years are still fresh memories: Do you know if your teachers still have their jobs? Have you reached back to ask? Does it concern you that those children coming behind you sit in ever more-crowded classrooms, with ever fewer teachers to instruct them?
Do you know who represents you on your local school board? In the State House and the Senate? Are you registered to vote, and do you vote? Do you take the time to ask whether the men and women standing for office make the opportunities of public education, and appropriate financial support for it, and equitable access to it, the highest priority in their public service?
Do you imagine what the future will be like in your community of South Carolina, after public education has been largely dismantled? Will a smattering of public schools remain open for students with special needs or disabilities, ones that private schools don't accept and that charter schools aren't equipped to serve?
Or will the resegregation of schools be economic this time, with public schools serving lower-middle-class and lower-class children with their "minimally adequate" funding and facilities, while private schools accept the middle-class and upper-middle class students bringing state-subsidized vouchers with them?
Sadly, that future is not so far away.