Appreciating our Teachers
By now as you’ve heard me preach, I typically include a story to start out my homily.
Over the years, I’ve came across many, and one that I’ve used on several occasions for funeral homilies is the story of a psychologist who’s life was changed by his teacher.
Dr. H. Stephen Glenn was a well-known psychologist who has written a number of books, and each year would speak to over 100,000 people before his death in 2004. But all of this might never have been were it not for the efforts of his fifth grade teacher.
He began life as a learning-disabled child, having a distortion of vision called dyslexia. As a child, he learned words quickly, but also didn’t know that he saw words differently than the way others did. In his mind, his world was a wonderful place filled with these shapes called words and he developed a sight vocabulary that gave his parents optimism that he could learn. But then came the first grade. Here, he found letters were more important than words. As a dyslexic child, he made them upside down and backwards, and did not arrange them in the same order as others, and so he was labeled by his teacher “learning disabled.”
She wrote down her observations and passed them on to his second-grade teacher over the summer so she could develop an appropriate bias against him before he arrived. He entered the second grade able to see the answer to math problems but having no idea what the busy work was to reach them, and then found the busy work was more important than the answer. Now he was totally intimidated by the learning process, so he developed a stutter. Being unable to speak up assertively, unable to perform normal math functions and arranging letters inappropriately, he was a complete disaster. He would move to the back of each class, stay out of sight and, when called upon, mutter “I-d-don’t know.” This sealed his fate.
His third grade teacher knew before he arrived that he could not speak, write, read or do math, so she had no real optimism toward dealing with him. He discovered malingering as a basic tool to get through school. This allowed him to spend more time with the school nurse than the teacher or find vague reasons to stay home or be sent home. Such was his strategy in the third and fourth grades.
Just as he was about to die intellectually, he entered the fifth grade and met Miss Hardy, known in the western United States as one of the most formidable elementary school teachers to walk the Rocky Mountains. At six feet she towered above him, and she put her arms around him giving him a hug, and said “He’s not learning disabled. He’s eccentric.”
This changed people’s views of him, but she did not leave it there. She said “I’ve talked with your mom and she says when she reads something to you, you remember it almost photographically. You just don’t do it well when your asked to assemble all the words and pieces. And reading out loud appears to be a problem, so when I’m going to call on you to read in my class, I’ll let you know in advance so you can go home and memorize it the night before, then we’ll fake it in front of the others. Also mom says when you look something over, you can talk about it with great understanding, but when she asks you to read it word for word and even write something about it, you appear to get hung up in the letters and stuff and lose the meaning. So, when the other kids are asked to read and write those worksheets I give them, you can go home and under less pressure on your own time do them and bring them back to me the next day.”
She also said, “I notice you appear to be hesitant and fearful to express your thoughts and I believe that any idea a person has is worth considering. I’ve looked into this and I’m not sure it will work, but it helped a man named Demosthenes – can you say Demosthenes?” He tried to stutter “D-d-d”. She then said “Well you will be able to. He had an unruly tongue, so he put stones in his mouth and practiced until he got control of it. So I’ve got a couple of marbles, too big for you to swallow, that I’ve washed off. From now on when I call on you, I’d like you to put them in your mouth and stand up and speak up until I can hear and understand you.” And of course, supported by her manifest belief in and understanding of him, he took the risk, tamed his tongue and was able to speak.
The next year he went on to sixth grade, and Miss Hardy was also moved to that grade. So he had the opportunity to spend two full years under her tutelage.
He kept track of her over the years and when he learned she had cancer, he bought a plane ticket and he says figuratively stood in line behind her other special students. These included 3 US Senators, 12 state legislators and a number of chief executive officers of corporations and businesses as he learned about who she had taught in her career.
He closes by saying the interesting thing is that in comparing notes is that three-fourths of them went into the fifth grade quite intimidated by the educational process, believing they were incapable, insignificant and at the mercy of fate or luck. They then emerged from their contact with Miss Hardy believing they were capable, significant, influential people who had the capacity to make a difference in the world if they tried.
This year, we have just kicked off a year faced with some stress and challenges as deal with Covid which we all hope and pray will begin to fade as the school year goes on. But day in and day out, over the past five years I’ve served at Saint Joe’s, I’ve seen so many selfless teachers and incredible leadership from our principal Kelly Roche. To sum it up, I see many “Miss Hardys” here at Saint Joes. Sometimes though we forget all that the great teachers in our lives do. The work they put in at home. The patience they show with kids. How they go the extra mile for their class. Helping a child find their talents. Dealing with the emotions and drama of childhood adolescence. The teachers I’ve met at Saint Joe’s demonstrate in so many ways empathy, compassion, hard work and dedication. They see it as a real vocation, not “just a job.” We are so blessed.
As the year unfolds, whether you have children here at Saint Joe’s or not, I’d ask that you pray for our teachers. Learn from them, knowing that if you are a parent, you are the first teacher of your child, and you can chose to be like Miss Hardy or Dr. Glen’s other teachers who didn’t take the time to help him as they should have. Also, if you have children, work with your child’s teacher and hear them out, working as a team to help your child excel. And also learn how to excel as Miss Hardy did in patience; both with kids, but with others as with a little patience, we can help a saint to emerge.
A big “thank you” to all of our teachers here at Saint Joe’s, and to all who have said “yes” to this important vocation. Thank you for helping so many of us to find our gifts, and to prepare us for not just the next grade, but for the rest of our lives and ultimately how to pass God’s final exam. Know you are in our prayers every day!
God Bless ~ Fr. Paul
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