Day Thirty-One: A Letter to a Teacher

by Tom Noonan

This is a letter that I wrote to someone who I gave a Pollyanna gift to this Christmas.  Not all Pollyannas suck.

There are days, moments in time, or, even, for some people, milliseconds that define the type of person we’re going to be.  They’re usually easy to miss, a common encounter with uncommon and far-reaching implications, and, more often than not, don’t have anything to do with the correct format used to cite sources.  We usually aren’t even cognizant of this cause and effect until much later in our lives, when we can remove ourselves from our personal timeline and realize how we arrived at a particular destination.

When I sat down to write this letter, to tell you that I want to donate my twenty-five dollar-limit to S—— Elementary, I was going to write something about Newtown.  I was going to write that, despite the atrocities that happened there, school needed to remain a place where kids can escape, where they can learn about the beauty and struggle of the world from the safety of a desk-chair combo.  I was going to write about the importance of these little utopian rooms where there is a form and order and genuine excitement towards the knowledge that is being gained and challenged.

I was going to write all of this, and I still sincerely believe every word of it, but I’ve decided to do something different.  I decided that you already knew all of that, that there’s nothing I can say about teaching which you haven’t already discovered through first-hand encounters with the profession.  In fact, writing to you in that way, about something you handle with such importance and kindness every day, would only serve to further what you already know: that teaching is unequivocally the most important profession, and, to quote Jeanette Walls, “calling”, in our society.  It is also, more often than not, one of the most underappreciated professions in our society (and is definitely the most underappreciated if we were to make a graph of intellectual-growth vs. number of “Thank you”’s, but I’m not sure I’m capable of making that graph.)

So, instead of telling you something you already know, I’d like to tell you something you probably don’t know.  When I was a junior in high school at Penn Charter, I was propositioned with a seemingly impossible task: to read, and completely discern all forms of meaning from, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  At the time, I struggled with the novel, and, by the end, I was fairly disillusioned with the book, believing that Twain had failed to write the apt satire about race I had been sold on by an all-permeating, all-imposing American culture.  So, when I was asked to write a paper on the novel, I instead wrote a creative piece, recounting a key scene from the book from Jim’s perspective.  It was filled with my own agenda and an overt anger towards the resolutions reached in the novel.

A few days after I handed in the paper, my teacher asked me to meet with him to go over it.  He asked me why I decided to write about the book in the way I did, and I told him that I wanted to give Jim the humanity Twain never could.  This lead us into a long, sometimes heated conversation about the nature of the novel.  In the end, we found out that we were actually arguing the same point, only his argument was better versed in the novel as a whole while mine was grounded in some key, memorable scenes.  What we kept coming back to, the point that made this conversation worth mentioning in this letter, was that Mark Twain didn’t have the courage to write the story of Jim illegally escaping slavery.  He used the guise of satire to cover up his inability to deliberately challenge the institution of slavery and its racist heart, the same heart that pulsed through every town in his beloved South.

So I backtracked, saying I wanted to retroactively give Twain the courage he never had, and my teacher called me out on this particular nugget of bullshit saying, “Courage can’t be sent back in time; it’s non-transferrable.  It only happens here and now.  What do you have the courage to do?  What do you have the courage to write?”  I will always, for the rest of my life, be attempting to answer those two questions.  This is what a teacher can do, what I know you do everyday.  They give themselves to their students, without reservations, and never let them settle or rest for a second.  Great teachers inspire educational restlessness.

This is not to say that the work isn’t frustrating at times or even, and much more often, fun.  All it means is that teachers are the only people who can get us where we need to go, that can help us recognize where we should be headed.  Teachers are as much navigators as they are cartographers; they will always know where to go and, even if they can’t travel the whole way with us, teachers will help us make up our own maps.

So, in conclusion to a letter that I wanted to be short but is now sprawling across two pages, I want to close with what I earlier said I wasn’t going to say: I believe in, and am unabashedly inspired by, what you do everyday.  Whether it is our profession or something to do on the side, we should all aspire to be teachers.  The most important people in this world, today, right now, this second and for many, many more after it, are teachers.  This is why I want to donate this arbitrarily small Pollyanna dollar-limit to your school.  I’m not ready to be a teacher, but I’m more than ready, and particularly moved, to support those who are.