There is a reason that the apostle James wrote that “Not many of you should become teachers . . . for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Taylor Mali explains it this way in his poem “The wisest woman in the eighth grade”: “Words have power. Not like engines, like atoms./ You can split your whole life apart/ if you gather all the wrong words together in the right place./ Even a single letter can work wonders/ if you write it well and mean it.”
Teachers spread so many, many words on such tender, tender ears. Ears that are attached to minds and minds that are attached to hearts—though often students are entirely unaware of the connection. Each day these adolescent scholars file into my classroom, sit in the painfully small desks. Books with homework shards flapping farewell to the carefreeness of summer days. Shoulders weighted with backpacks and the argument with mom left unresolved because the bus arrived two minutes too early at the house. Each student, each pulsing mind that arrives promptly before the bell rings, is primed for bloom. They are primed for teaching, for the tipping and pouring of one mind into another.
So, with confidence in my subject matter and trepidation at the import of my influence, I spread my words. It is most like a compose pile. We—my students and I—all bring our broken egg shells, our banana peels, our grass clippings and compile them. Allow the smells, the acids, the gnawing worms to comingle. An intellectual melding of life experience and higher learning. And when they walk out of my classroom—Room 46 with the World War II poster reading, “Keep Calm and Carry On”—they may believe they have only read a poem about a man named Richard Cory. A sad story. Pathetic really. But just a story. A mere narrative poem.
Yet, during this class, other words are spread peanut-butter-like on the jelly of their minds. A student asks, “If Richard was so miserable, why didn’t he just tell people how he really felt?” A child-genius lies within that student. “I’m glad you asked,” I respond. And so the discussion goes.
I cannot boast of my pedagogical abilities or intellectual prowess, nor do I assume the attainment of the unwavering respect or even attention of those occupying the desks in my class. Some leave the academic stage with their cap and gown and diploma and disappear without an over-the-shoulder glance. Others smile through tears at commencement, offering hugs and gratitude for your investment in this launching off of the rest of their lives. These happenings are neither failure nor success on my part. Each student is his own pilot, steering his rudder in whatever direction he may choose. My job was—and is—to teach.
And one day, a distant day, once more words have been added by teachers, coaches, parents, bosses, friends, ad infinitum—along with more heartache and more joys, and more of what so many simply call “life”—after the process of decomposition has blended all of this together; a wiser, sturdier person emerges. The student of long-ago has become the man or woman of conviction. Possessing a strength of character and integrity born of the composting of input and experience.