Today is my fifty-fifth birthday. I was resolved to focus my mind on business as usual, but when I walked into my office this morning I found sitting on my desk chair a large manila envelope, and in the envelope I found a tribute from a former student now living on the east coast. Sometimes you don’t realize how much you need encouragement until you receive it. I instantly felt a clutch in my throat as I read his words, and my heart welled in gratitude: Thank you, Father. The Scripture tells us that “every good and perfect gift is from above,” and this was a perfect gift. I’ve had a spring in my step all day.
But this encouraging act has also convicted me, and so I would like to offer a tribute of my own to two of my former teachers. I don’t use that term lightly, by the way. In his essay “Like Captured Fireflies,” John Steinbeck underscores what a blessing it is to encounter an authentic teacher. In this briefest of reflections, the author relates how his eleven-year-old son once came to him, despondent at the prospect of spending the prime of his life imprisoned in school. “It’s terrible,” the father sympathized, “and I’m not going to try to tell you it isn’t. But I can tell you this—if you are very lucky, you may find a teacher, and that is a wonderful thing.”
Are true teachers really that rare? Steinbeck explains, “I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. It might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.” Steinbeck claimed to have encountered three in his own schooling, different from his other instructors because of three qualities: they loved what they were doing, they inspired in him “a burning desire to know,” and they made the truth “beautiful and very precious.”
I’ve had at least two teachers that meet these demanding criteria, and each blessed me at a crucial juncture in my life. The first was Mrs. Gloria Henderson, my junior high social studies teacher. More than forty years have passed since I sat in her classroom, but I still can feel the excitement and energy that she brought into our midst. She was in her thirties when we first met—young, passionate, and opinionated. I’ve heard it said that to teach is to love something publicly, and Mrs. Henderson taught me history in precisely that way—by loving it infectiously. It wasn’t the discrete facts that stuck in my mind but the unstated premise that framed our every class session: the past was real, stocked with amazing stories and remarkable figures that could change our lives forever. I was hooked.
But Mrs. Henderson didn’t only love history, she loved me. When we first met I was overwhelmed by the awful realities of adolescence. Twelve years old, I had no idea where I fit in the junior-high universe. I was short, overweight, near-sighted, and got good grades—a combination that maximized my misery daily. She either sensed or observed the isolation I felt—I don’t know which it was—but she gave me more private pep talks than I could count, and her simple acts of kindness were a critical lifeline that I will never forget.
The second teacher that stands out in my memory was Professor John Morrow, who taught the first history course that I ever took in college. Dr. Morrow was my western civ instructor at the University of Tennessee, and I found him captivating. I was in a small honors section with Dr. Morrow, and while most of the freshmen who took western civ sat in a cavernous lecture hall with hundreds of classmates and listened to lectures, I got to sit in a circle of a dozen or so students and have conversations with this remarkable man. He treated us like adults (it gets your attention when you’re eighteen years old and your professor calls you “Mr. McKenzie”), but even more, he treated us like fellow historians, and I loved it.
Humanly speaking, I’m probably a college history professor because of Dr. Morrow. My dad was an accountant and my mother was a math teacher, and my two older siblings grew up to be an accountant and a math teacher. History professor wasn’t on my radar, but at the end of my freshman year, Dr. Morrow told me that I had the potential to do what he did for a living. He didn’t push me, just offered to talk with me about it if I ever wanted. The following spring we sat on a bench outside the humanities building while he talked to me about his life and why he loved what he was doing. God used numerous individuals and influences to lead me down the path I have taken, but Professor Morrow’s role was critical. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a history professor after our talk, but he had planted an idea that hadn’t been there before, and it wouldn’t go away. I’m a firm believer that many of the most important things a teacher does take place outside the classroom: in office hours, over coffee, or sitting on a bench on a chilly spring day.
John Steinbeck concludes “Like Captured Fireflies” by describing a high school teacher “who left her signature on us, the literature of the teacher who writes on minds. . . . I suppose that to a large extent I am the unsigned manuscript of that high school teacher,” he muses to his son. “What deathless power lies in the hands of such a person.”
If you’ve been blessed by an extraordinary teacher, why not let him or her know?