When John Steinbeck’s 11-year old son asked his father how much longer he had to go to school,
Steinbeck replied, “About fifteen years. It’s terrible 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.” He then goes on to praise teachers with his characteristic eloquence and insight:
“A great teacher is a great artist and there are as few as there are any other great artists. It might even be the greatest of arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.
Great teachers have these things in common:
• They all love what they are doing.
• They do not tell—instead, they catalyze a burning desire to know.
• Under their influence, horizons spring wide and fear goes away and the unknown becomes knowable.
• Most important of all, the truth, that dangerous stuff, becomes beautiful and very precious.
My first true teacher, in addition to other things, brought discovery. She aroused us to discovery to shouting, bookwaving discussions. She had the nosiest class in school and she didn’t even seem to know it. We could never stick to the subject, geometry of the chanted recitation of the memorized phyla. Our speculation ranged the world. She breathed curiosity into us so that we brought in facts or truths shielded in our hands like captured fireflies.
She was fired and perhaps rightly so, for failing to teach the fundamentals. Such things must be learned. But she left a passion in us for the pure knowable world and me she inflamed with a curiosity which never left me. I could not do simple arithmetic but through her I sensed that abstract mathematics was very like music. When she was removed, a sadness came over us but the light did not go out. She left her signature on us, the literature of the teacher who writes on minds. I have had many teachers who told me soon-forgotten facts but only a few who created in me a new thing, a new attitude and a new hunger. I am the unsigned manuscript of that high school teacher. What deathless power lies in the hands of such a person."
And you, dear reader. Have you been so lucky as to find a teacher with that magic that lit up all the years that followed? If so, and you haven’t done it yet, don’t forget to thank them.