Friday, May 25, 2018

Legacy

I walked into this building as a seventh grader in 1969. I'll walk out of it as a retiree in less than two weeks.

You get asked a lot of questions when you retire, many of which have the unintended consequence of poking you right in the feels. (I'm definitely not  crying at least once a day, but if I did, I would at least manage to do it when I'm not in front of anybody.) Some are pretty basic (what are you going to do with that filing cabinet) and some dig a little deeper, like the comments about my legacy. Some folks have even offered to watch after my legacy, to preserve it, and I just don't have the heart to tell them that I have no legacy in this building.

I'm the longest-serving member of the current faculty, which means that I've seen a lot of people head out the door, and I know exactly what kind of mark they leave behind them.

Teachers are not billionaires or politicians. We don't generally get to build giant structures and slap our own names on them in hopes that some day we will leave a mark behind us. We don't generally get honored with statues and monuments, not even in a broad Tomb of the Unknown Teacher way, let alone as specific individuals. Nobody is out there carving his third grade teacher's face into the side of a mountain.

A teacher in a school is like a post driven deep into the bed of a river. The current bends around her; maybe it cuts into the bank and certainly it carries river traffic along paths affected by that post. Even the bed of the river will be cut and shaped by the current as it bends around that post. People even start to navigate by the post, as if it's a permanent part of the river.

But something happens when the post is one day removed.

Maybe folks are so impressed by the post that they put a special commemorative marker in place of the post. Maybe some big boulders rolled into place against the post and stay in place long after the post is gone, even when folks don't remember how they ended up there.

But mostly there's a momentary swirl of dirt, a quick rush of water and then, after a brief moment of time, the river bed is smooth again and the river flows as if there was never any post at all.

I don't imagine I will leave much of legacy here, and what little there is will be worn away over time, and that's okay. I do have a legacy, but to see it, you have to look downstream.

I figure that I've worked with, roughly, 5,000 students. Some of them are still carrying around bits of skill or knowledge that I passed on to them, or parts of their lives that grew out of something I passed on to them. They grew up to be living, breathing, growing, active men and women who worked at finding how to be their best selves, how to be fully human in the world. Undoubtedly some of those students didn't get much out of being in my class, and some have less-than-positive memories of me, but I have to believe that some got something out of their time in my room.

That's my legacy. People who felt just a little better about reading, or just a little better about riding. Here and there some students who actually pursued writing or teaching as careers. Some students who built a foundation of confidence in an activity. Some I hear from now and then, some I talk to regularly, and some whose lives took them far from here, and I have no idea how their stories have unfolded.

My legacy-- and every teacher's legacy-- is not here in this building. This building is just brick and mortar and rules and procedures and "traditions" that sometimes last less than a decade, all carried out by a constantly-changing cast of educators and students. Names and awards are created, but they carry on names even as the person whose name it is is forgotten. My legacy-- and every teacher's legacy-- is out in the world, in those students who passed through this building, and it's not for anyone to "preserve" because it has a life of its own-- as it should.

If I can switch metaphors for a moment-- as teachers, our job is to light a fire, to pass along a flame. Passing on a flame is a curious activity-- the new flame is not a piece of the old one, but its own new thing, with its own new life, even as the old fire continues to burn. Spreading a flame multiplies it, but the new flame is not shaped or controlled by the old one.

If I walk back into this building ten years from now, I don't imagine that I'll find anything to indicate that I was ever here. But, "God help and forgive me, I wanna build something that's gonna outlive me." Teaching has always let me do that-- but not here, not in this building. Not in this stiff structure of unliving steel and stone. Out there in the world, where the water carries us to the sea, new fires spring up to illuminate the world, and human beings full of life and breath roam and grow. If we're going to have a legacy, that's where it will be.



7 comments:

  1. "If I walk back into this building ten years from now, I don't imagine that I'll find anything to indicate that I was ever here."

    Don't count on that. My picture - in 5 x 7 format - still adorns the high school I graduated from 30 years ago and I was a measly student for 4 years. Also, until he retired two years ago, my English teacher every year read a story I wrote in his class. Your writing is a lot better than my sophomore writing, so I imagine people will still be reading it.

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  2. Peter,
    Thank you from down the web stream. You’ve influenced many of us out on the interwebs as well. Thank you for your voice and words and insights.

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  3. They will forget us and that's as it should be. I don't teach to garner appreciation; I teach to help children unlock their human potential and become the best that they can be. One of my reflection questions this year asked what concerns they had as they move on to their next math course. I was amazed that some students said that they would not have me as their teacher. But I know they are moving on to better teachers. It's not about me; it never has been.

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  4. https://www.facebook.com/debbie.etterling/posts/10212276259570210

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  5. Peter, I always enjoy your ravings against the lunacy that has swamped and threatens to obliterate our system of public education. This piece of writing is something different.

    Like you, nearly all of my adult life has been spent in the same school system where I was a student. My first teaching assignment was in the school I had attended junior high, and also where my mother had done the same. At my retirement 7 years ago, I calculated I'd been through some 5500 kids, 13 superintendents and 12 principals in my 36 years. A couple of years ago, at a body shop, it turned out the tech was a student from one of my first classes. Now a grandfather in his 50's(!) he remembered middle school as lots of fun that shaped who he became as an adult - it was one of the best moments from my teacher life.

    Your analogy of a teacher's role to that of a post in a passing river is a bittersweet acknowledgement of both the power of our role and the ephemeral nature of it. Thank you for this loving post.

    Christine Langhoff

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  6. I taught for 31 years in the same district, grades K-12, mostly instrumental and vocal music, but occasionally 7th grade math and ESL (don't ask). I had over 6000 students, in that time, because my classes were huge. It was a small town. During the time I was there, I won a major award (Michigan Teacher of the Year) and several other recognitions. My picture was in the local paper multiple times, as well as the front page of the Free Press. And--I lived in the community, and my children attended school there.

    I say all this to reinforce your point. Once you're gone, you're gone. Maybe the next year, some of the teachers will miss your clever banter at lunch. Maybe a parent will say "Sure wish Jason could have had Mr. Greene, instead of Ms. White." Maybe if you showed up at the Santa Claus parade with your trombone, kids would wave at you, thinking you looked really familiar.

    A couple years after I retired, I was keynoting the statewide School Band & Orchestra conference (a speech about getting political). Afterward, a guy walked up and said he taught in my former district. Turns out he was the second person to take the job I used to have (the first one flamed out)--but he was really unclear on who I was, just when I taught there (back in the 70s, was it?), yada yada.

    Of course, when I retired, I left years' worth of recordings, festival honors plaques, 30 years' worth of concert programs, etc.--not to mention excellent instrument inventory records, a fully developed music library cross-referenced with when each piece was performed, and music for all our 'regular' gigs--the Santa Claus parade, the Halloween Spooktacular. Again, yada yada. All of those carefully preserved records? Who knows what happened to them.

    I was a bit honked off when the guy didn't seem to know anything about me--never even heard my name. Then I realized--three years had passed. All the kids who were my students were out of the building (and a bunch of the veteran teachers, who took the buy-out, like me). The next person in pitched 30 years of what seemed like crap to her. Then this guy showed up, determined to be the World's Best Band Director. Just like me, in 1974.

    THe good news is that he and I have become FB and Twitter friends. He runs a weekly Twitter chat for music educators and is really sharp--smarter than I was in my first decade of teaching. I have pointed him to a couple of gems in the music files at school. He has sent me some amazing literature on new-think in music education.

    That's what I'm hoping for you--that you get to chat with young teachers often, and that you not get too big for your britches (laughing).

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  7. We readers grow by your insights and are inspired by you efforts. That's another, mostly unseen, legacy. Thank you, Peter Greene. -George Reese

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