It seems right to use the word passing to describe his death. He was a man of great faith, and I’m sure he thought of his own inevitable death as a passage to something new, rather than an end. It also feels right to use the word passing to describe his teaching. He passed along so much more than his amazing knowledge of Greek and Latin literature, his enviable fluency with ancient languages, his delight in poetry. He also passed on, through the model of his own life, the importance of holding onto childish delight, the truth that love brings people together more than anything else, that listening is the key to education, that being open to the beauty of each simple day is the best way forward. He was my favorite teacher, but as I thought about him during his memorial service which I, thankfully, was able to watch via Zoom, I realized that I have been lucky enough to have had many ‘favorite’ teachers.
There are those whose faces and voices are right within reach, whenever I need them – like my HS English teacher, my 10th Grade Chemistry teacher, my first Greek professor in college, my 4th grade teacher, my social studies teacher from junior high school. And there were others who, if I give it a bit more thought, can also be brought to mind. But when I think of them collectively, I see that their greatness as teachers had little to do with their subject matter. Yes, some of them taught me classics and literature and writing – all subjects which have formed the backbone of my adult work. But others taught science, music, psychology, even math. It wasn’t their daily lesson plans that provided the lessons which have stuck. Each of them in their own way taught me how to live in the world, how to live with myself, how to listen and think and persevere and discover. Some of those lessons were taught in the classroom, but many were taught on walkways or hallways, in offices and playgrounds. They understood that their role as teacher extended beyond the walls of the classroom or the hours of the lesson. They gave the gift of their lives as they had lived them. To me, to this day, that is the real job of a teacher, and a job which, to an innate teacher, comes naturally.
Our societies give a lot of lip service to the value of education and the importance of teachers. Those of us who have been lucky enough to have had great teachers in our lives know that we owe much more to them than what society gives back. It is often said that we are all the sum of our experiences. I believe that I am the sum of my teachers.