Horace Mann once said “Be ashamed to die until you’ve won some small victory for humanity.” I think most people who teach can relate to this statement in some way. I taught my first college course in the fall of 2004. Here we are over a decade later and a lot has changed. I think I do a better job now, but I’m no expert. I’m not Jaime Escalante or the Freedom Writer lady. No, I’m just a washed up ex cop with a serious physical injury and a body racked by an incurable disease. Some days are better than others both in and out of the classroom.
I suppose on some level, all of us who teach wonder if it is worth it. After all, how useful is history really to a person who is a math or science major? Students come to class and go through the motions. As professors, so do we. I’ve been stuck in a rut the past couple of years. I’m a part time faculty member who wears the Scarlet “A” of being an adjunct. I’ve given up hope of full time employment. It’ll never happen. I left one institution because of the increased rules and regulations that singled out adjuncts for “special treatment” such as forcing us to sign a civility oath (seriously). I barely make enough money to pay the bills and many of my medical bills go unpaid. So why do I do it?
Honestly, I don’t know anymore. But sometimes I think back over the course of my teaching career. I don’t always remember names, but I can remember faces. I think back on all the fun times I’ve had in the classroom. I’ve had classes I loved and fortunately only a couple that I’d rather have run backwards naked through a cornfield than to have taught. I think about all the students I’ve had pass in and out of my classroom doors and thus, my life. I wonder where they are now and what they are doing. I hope they all go on to make their mark on the world.
When I was a police officer, I got used to instant gratification. Saw bad guy. Arrested same. Someone committed a crime. I arrested them. End of story. Teaching isn’t like that. You never truly know (and indeed, may never know) how much of a difference (if any) you make. The impact might be years down the road. All you can do is hope for the best. It isn’t simply teaching. Sometimes a friendly word to a troubled student or allowing them to vent about some problem in their life is what makes the difference, not the causes of the Civil War. I always say I teach students, not a subject, because some of the biggest lessons deal with life rather than Warren G. Harding’s underwear preference.
And sometimes, I learn from my students. In fact, I learn as much from them as they do from me. Not about history, of course, but about myself. Yes, they teach me about myself. They force me to evaluate what I do and why, how I do things, and how to teach when I’m so racked with pain that I’d rather be in bed. For this I’m eternally grateful to them all. Being in a classroom allows me to forget for a while my own issues. The semesters pass with the speed of lightning these days. One turns into another in the blink of an eye. It seems just as though you truly get to know your students, they are gone only to be replaced with a new batch.
Have I won some small victory for humanity? No, I don’t think I have. But I’m not ashamed to die either. Then again, I don’t know what qualifies as a small victory for humanity. Maybe I have. But I do know this. All the students who have touched my life over the years can rest assured that they have made a difference to me. If the true measure of a person is whether or not you are better off for having known a person, then I can say without question that I am certainly better off for having known them all. I sincerely hope they can say the same about me.
P.S.: Any teacher who ever doubts what they are doing must watch the Twilight Zone episode entitled “The Changing of the Guard”. It aired in Season 3 and Season 1-3 and 5 are currently on Netflix, so I recommend you watch it ASAP before Netflix removes it, as they seem to do with all their good programming these days.