Can you remember your ninth grade English teacher?
Mine was Mr. Paul Terpstra. He was my ninth (and eleventh) grade English teacher at Chelsea High School in Michigan. He came to mind the other day when I was talking with friends.
Back in high school, he had us read To Build A Fire by Jack London, and Mr. Terpstra’s main theme for the story was this: “You must know your limits.” For those who don’t know the story, it is about a man who undertakes a long trek in subzero temperatures – a trek that pushes the very boundaries of his survival.
Mr. Terpstra’s lessons were always articulated in these “themes.” If I remember correctly, what he wanted us to understand was that each of us has a unique set of personal guidelines by which we must abide – we should strive to know when we’ve reached the edge of our comfort zone, to know when to push past our comfort zone, and to be aware of how far beyond that zone we can safely tread. Now, not many of the teenagers in my class were facing the kind of perilous life-or-death situation that the protagonist of the story experienced. But looking back on this lesson a decade later, I realized that we are often faced with situations that push our personal or professional limits. And to survive— in our relationships, our jobs, our lives, and especially in our high schools—we must know our limits and strive to keep our genuine selves in sight.
I mention Mr. Terpstra’s lesson because I think everyone can recall a teacher or other education professional who has made a difference in his or her life. It might not be a radical difference. Mr. Terpstra didn’t change my life’s course; he didn’t reach out to me in a moment of need, and he wasn’t always a comforting presence. (In fact, he was notorious for liberally punishing students with the much maligned lunch detention.) But the fact remains: I remember what he taught me and I can apply it to my everyday life. To this day I can still recite his definition of irony: “A statement or event in which the opposite is said or the unexpected happens.”
Each of us has the opportunity to use the lessons our teachers shared with us. And every time we do so, we have the chance to honor our teachers and their dedication to our education.
At the Curry School of Education the mission of our teacher preparation program is to train future teachers who will undoubtedly have an impact on generations of children and adults.
As you continue to honor your past teachers in your thoughts and your actions, we ask that you also consider honoring them by making a gift to the Curry School Foundation in support of future teachers.
PS: If you have even a tiny bit of doubt that everyone can recall a teacher who had an impact on their life, check out what Sir Ken Robinson has to say about Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, in his book The Element. “Until he got to college, he’d found only one teacher who truly inspired him. ‘My first-grade teacher saved paintings I did in class. She actually saved them, I mean, for years. I was touched because there’s like, you know, hundreds of kids going through there. Her name is Elizabeth Hoover. I named a character on The Simpsons after her.’”