Last Saturday I went out for lunch with a former student, Zach. I first met Zach during his senior year in the winter of 2004, just a few short months after his younger brother had been killed in a car accident. One of our first conversations was about his brother because the first class assignment is on The Scarlet Ibis, a story about a boy and his brother's death. I remember that I wanted to give him the option to do an alternative assignment, but when I was talking to him I couldn't look him in the eye.
Zach became one of my favorite students. Teachers try not to have favorites, but the fact is it's just like any other type of job where you get along with some people really well, just click with them. Zach and I have a lot in common, and the strength he showed after his brother's death taught me a lot. He turned in an 'assignment' to me once, an essay about his brothers (there are five boys in all) and it still today is the most moving piece of writing I've ever read by a student. He became my student aide, and we've kept in touch since his graduation in 2005.
When we were chatting over lunch, he told me that I had impacted him and that I was one of the best teachers he had ever had. Let me tell you...that means something. I know I can't change every life I encounter--I teach almost 500 kids a year--but to know that I did change a life, for the better, gives me pause.
There is an honor in the title "teacher." I have always identified myself as a teacher, and I hope that even in my capacity as a funeral director I will be able to "teach"--to help people look at something in a new way, to guide them, to give them the tools and knowledge they need in order to become something more than what they were before I met them. But, there's a huge difference between spending a year with someone and cultivating that level of trust and admiration required for real teaching to take place. Can I do it with someone who is in crisis? In a few days? I don't know. And if I can't, it's the number one thing I'll miss about teaching. Hands down.