A couple of friends and I have been gathering every other week to read through The RDI Book. To spotlight the affect that emotions have on our episodic memory, I shared a true story about two of my ninth-grade teachers: one tried to teach me to do art and the other taught me to enjoy art and live a full life.
The first was THE art teacher whose name I have forgotten. All I remember was her scowling at those evil clods who did not get art. Since her art did not pay, she made sure we all paid for it every bloody moment of her class. The few gifted enough to earn her smiles never understood why the kids who drew stick figures despised her. I will leave it to you to discern into which category I fell. The lasting impression I carry around in my mind of her is a dried-up grump with a scrunchy, Mr. MaGoo face and a black beret cocked to the side. Whether or not it is accurate, that picture is the caricature she became in my mind.
Then, there was Mr. P, our English teacher who also taught humanities on the side. Our school, a K-12 school on a small American Navy base in Newfoundland, Canada, had only twenty-eight students in the 7th through 12th grades. He could tell that the other new student and I seemed nervous on our first day of high school in an unfamiliar place. He welcomed us and called us to the front desk. He said he could tell from our records that we were pretty girls and, winking at two other girls in the class, added, "Not like those dingbats over there."
We relaxed right away, and then he told us about the chair. It was an ugly, old, Navy-issue, sage-green upholstery chair. He pointed to it and said students could take turns reading in it. He gave us pens and explained that any time we wanted we could doodle, draw, or write on it. That chair was so special nobody ever dreamed of leaving profanity. People sat there during class and even during lunch.
Mr. P loved people. Whenever elementary school kids walked by on the way to the library, he would herd us into the hall and we would wave at and greet all the little kids. Every child in our school knew Mr. P and he knew everyone of them by name. He gave many of them affectionate nicknames like "The Terror of Ten Hundred". He coached the basketball team and chaperoned many of the activities: the fishing derby, camping trips, dances, etc.
The first book he assigned was The Hobbit. That year, I fell in love with fantasy and have gone on to read The Lord of the Rings, C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and others in that genre. Mr. P had an ulterior motive for it. As you can imagine, the weather in Newfoundland was dreary as dreary could be. Fog. Wind. Fog. Rain. Fog. Mist. Fog. Snow. Fog. Sleet. Fog. Slush. Oh, yeah, and fog. Mr. P had lived there long enough to know that before the end of the school year would come a glorious day, full of sunshine, in which even he could do nothing to snag our attention. On that day, he told us to put away the books because we were all going out hobbit-hunting. We happily strolled out to the docks, where no hobbit in his right mind would be.
He also taught us humanities. He spent part of the class flipping through a slide show of artwork. He paused on a picture and we talked about everything from the details we noticed to the connections we made and the feelings we felt. The warm memories of those slide shows got us through studying for the written tests. We learned from him what the professional art teacher never managed to convey: an appreciation for the beauty and originality and preciousness of art.
Before we graduated, Mr. P taught us his last lesson. For many of us, it was the first lesson of its kind. After school, he often went running with some guys. On the Thursday before Spring Break, he ran as usual, felt a little faint, and sat in the chair. His heart, which had an undetected murmur, gave out and he died. While the shock of losing him so suddenly hit us all in the gut, we slowly began to realize we were all with him when he died. Every student who had sat in that chair and made their mark on the upholstery waved goodbye to him as he headed off to the happy, hobbit-hunting grounds.
Mr. P taught us many things that cannot be measured in this No Child Left Untested world. He taught us how to learn, how to live, and how to die. He understood the power of relationships. His warmth, encouragement, and exuberance was the emotional glue that gave us lasting memories of the books we shared and the art we enjoyed.
I always tear up when I share this story with people, which even made it to an anthology ("Goodbye, Mr. P"). One of the parents in our little group reflected on the results of prompting and correcting a child with autism all of the time. You end up angry and tired. Is that really what you want them to code into their memories of their relationship with you?
"What is a parent to do?" you ask.
I suggest you do Nothing, a corollary to Charlotte Mason's mantra ("Whereby teachers shall teach less and scholars shall learn more"). If you have no idea of the power of Nothing, click here. This little gem is worthy of your refrigerator and bathroom mirror.