Upon of learning of the 80th birthday of one of my favorite junior high school teachers, I was curious to learn if there is a national Teacher Appreciation Day. After all, the breadth and depth of national holidays astounds: Sweet Potato Day, Umbrella Day, Hug a G.I. day, there’s even a Peanut Butter Day. To my relief, (please excuse my ignorance), there is indeed a day of celebration for teachers; this year it will be May 8.
But as I reflect, I wonder if one day is enough? I firmly believe that the teachers I know—my own, my friends and my colleagues at UNC-Chapel Hill—should be honored every day. The gifts they give are the most enduring because of their ability to see the potential in young people and to spark within us a lifelong path of learning. My soon to-be-80 language arts-social studies teacher is special because of his passion for ideas.
Yes, we memorized facts; yes, we diagrammed sentences (ugh); and yes, we wrote papers (thank you), but the knowledge I retained was more profound than that. In his classroom, we were free to talk about ideas previously reserved for adults: politics, death, love, betrayal, even teen pregnancy and addiction. In fact, the examination of ideas was required. Our reading list was edgy, especially for the times: Death be Not Proud, Flowers for Algernon, and Watership Down. But my teacher was brave and he knew that the value of exposing young people to ideas far outweighed the risk.
To be clear, teachers aren’t perfect; they would be the first to decry such a label. They are human and within that scope lies the full range of virtues and foibles. But because of their life’s work, the best of them have a nobility that no other profession can match. I think of another great educator, a man for whom I was fortunate enough to write a speech or two for in my time, the teacher-governor, James B. Hunt. He was fond of quoting that old axiom that goes: “You never stand so high as when you stoop to help a child.”
So here is to my beloved junior high teacher and all the great ones who followed him. Without their influence, and with no disrespect to farmers and truckers, it is safe to say that a great many of us would indeed be sitting at home naked and hungry.