Tuesday, April 23, 2013

What does a teacher really do?

This isn't my story, I heard it on the radio yesterday.  I can't stop thinking about it. 
It's a story about a third grader, a self described "black Irish" kid of immigrant parents. He was never a very good student because he was a thinker and observer, often in his own world instead of the world that included school. 
He loved to draw, but his Father would have none of it. To a struggling Irish immigrant "head of household", drawing pictures was not productive and an absolute waste of time. So, the boy did his drawing in secret. 
It was the third grade teacher who noticed the blond boy in the back of the class. He never participated much. He was obviously not paying attention to the lessons even now and instead was doodling on a piece of paper on his lap, hidden by his desk. 
She called his name and the boy realized he had been caught. His world of imagination suddenly collided with the real world of third grade as the teacher made him the center of attention. When she asked what he was doing he was honest and said he was drawing a picture. The teacher said, "Then why don't you come up here and show the class what is so important that you do not have to listen like everyone else." 
He knew what this was about.  The teacher had chosen to get his attention by humiliating him in front of the class. It was a long walk to the front of the room and every eye was on him. He prepared to suffer the laughing and teasing of the class as he held up his picture, Dead kid walkin' as he made it to the front.
Without fanfare he held up his pencil drawing.  It was more complicated than the teacher expected and instead of laughter it solicited confusion from the class. But the punishment didn't end there.
The teacher said, "Why don't you tell us what that picture is all about?" He took in a deep breath and for the first time standing in front of his peers he told the story of the picture.
"These are the cowboys on their horses who are shooting at the indians. The indians, on their horses,  are shooting back at the cowboys with bows and arrows. What the indians don't know is that the cowboys are pushing them toward the edge of a canyon. The cowboys plan to force the tribe off the edge and kill them because they want the land where the indians live."  The boy paused for a moment to realize that there was no laughing or teasing and even the teacher seemed to be enjoying the story. Then he said, "These things in the sky are B-52 bombers coming to join in the battle... what the cowboys don't know is... they are on the side of the Indians."  There was laughter at that point and spattered applause from the class.  The teacher sat silently for a moment. The boy thought that he had only delayed the humiliation that was certain to come.
She finally spoke. "Okay here is the deal. I will get an easel with large pad of paper and put it right here at the front of the class, and I'll bring some colored pencils and crayons.  Every Wednesday you draw a picture and explain it to the class.  And... for the rest of the time you keep up with the class and study." 
The boy agreed and kept his end of the bargain as did the teacher. Instead of a moment of defeat it was the defining moment in a boy's life.
Even now, at the age of 76, he still recalls that moment in a radio interview. That teacher turned an otherwise destructive moment into the pivotal turn in the life of a man who would become an actor, director, producer, artist,writer and free thinker.  The teacher knew him as Bobby.  We know him as Robert Redford.
Exceptional teachers nurture the talents of exceptional people. It is never about the test scores... it is about figuring out the game of life. 
As you were,


Tracy said...

What an incredible story! As an educator, I know so many of us that would love to be able to nurture and support students that way. I am lucky, I teach at the community college level, I can do that, those in public education (k-!2) aren't so lucky anymore. Education is now all about restrictions, standardizing, making benchmarks, and the most holy of all, the all important test scores. Not time for individuality or creativity

Kenny Croes said...

your story reminds me of paul harvey, who had such a compelling way telling tales with surprise endings.

Dale said...

Great post.
In another life I was a H.S. Journalism teacher. A handful of my students went on to become professional journalists and another handful went on to become journalism teachers. 40 years later I'm still in touch with some of those students.I loved teaching. (I didn't care much for teachers, though.)

P. Grecian said...

Wonderful. I had a third grade teacher like that. She had me do colored chalk drawings on the blackboard for each holiday or piece of literature we studied. That was a long time ago, but I think of it yet.
Teachers build lives.
As always, thanks, Jay.