As the million mile an hour start-up that is the first week of school fades from memory, and teachers and students alike begin to settle back into the daily routines of a Nova Scotia school year, I find myself finally able to take a breath and share with you a story of a somewhat personal nature that happened to me very early in September.
On the 6th of this month, I was honored by being asked to say a few words at my own brother’s retirement party. He was finally leaving the teaching profession after thirty plus years, the vast majority of which he spent as the vice principal of the elementary and junior high school on Nova Scotia’s largest Mi’kmaq reserve in Eskasoni. To say that he has seen a great deal of change in the area of First Nations education over that time would be an insult to the magnitude of what he has witnessed. But as I thought about what I was going to say, the most bizarre and trite phrase popped into my head from seemingly nowhere.
“To teach is to touch lives forever.”
I know. Cliché, right? Of all the directions my words could have taken, this was the phrase that continued to haunt me. It was written on the side of a coffee mug I received last year from a grateful student, and it is only one of the conservatively ten thousand sayings about the teaching profession that have come to work their way into our modern vernacular. And although these may seem hokey to many, it must be admitted by even the grandest curmudgeon that they contain at least a modicum of truth. As much as we teachers may wince painfully when we walk through the local “Dime to a Dollar” store, reading the newest chicken-soup-for-the-teacher’s-soul catch phrase, we must, at the very least, be somewhat flattered that we are considered worthy of such platitudes.
I am not really sure if any other profession has such a market for cutesy sayings. Does the construction industry has a plethora of mugs that say things like “To build a house is to build a life”? Do thankful clients give lawyers packages of sticky notes that read “Lawyers believe their clients. Good lawyers believe in their clients”? Do the folks who pick up their cars from their local garage sheepishly offer over a travel mug that reads “If you are driving while drinking this, thank a mechanic.”? No, it seems that, for the most part, teachers have the market cornered.
Yet, as much as I remain one of the curmudgeoniest of all curmudgeons, as I prepared to speak ay my brother’s retirement, this one saying, etched on a coffee cup and passed to me by a student whose life I had obviously touched became somewhat less, well, hokey.
Because as I considered this statement about teachers touching lives, I realized that my brother, as a vice principal of a school in Nova Scotia’s largest Mi’kmaq community, had impacted thousands of lives. Children, staff, parents, grandparents. All, somehow bettered by his vision for education, his dedication to the community, and his years of insisting on excellence for the students he served. As I spoke into the microphone that evening, the number I arrived at was 21,000.
Now, I was probably wrong in that number. (I was in Cape Breton for a retirement party after all, and in my defense, I spoke second to last, after a number of toasts. My math may have been off by a drink or two.) But the number itself wasn’t what struck me as so powerful. It was the fact that the number was somewhere in the vicinity of 21,000…and counting.
Because even though he was retiring, the impact of thirty odd years of education will continue to resonate long after the speeches have ended.
At one point in the evening, a congratulatory letter was read from Pelican Narrows, Saskatchewan, the First Nation’s community where my brother had started his career. It was penned by a woman who my brother had taught when she was in grade 8. That this student, now a grown woman with kids of her own, took the time to write a personal letter to a teacher she had thirty years ago, speaks of a pretty serious impact, an impact that obviously still remains with her.
One of the speakers was the new principal of the Eskasoni school whom my brother had mentored to help her understand the ins and outs of administration. She spoke fondly of how he had guided her and how she learned so much from him. Knowledge that she was going to apply to the running of the school and the guiding of its staff and students as she took over her new responsibilities as principal.
In the course of the evening, I also met up with a friend of mine who is now the executive director of the Eskasoni school board. Her decisions guide the educational direction of hundreds of First Nations students including the elementary and junior high building, the high school, the adult training facility and the University bridging programs. She also was a student in my brother’s grade 8 English class.
Finally, I also can count mine among the lives touched. When I was twenty-two and about a year away from finishing up at Dalhousie with a degree in English, I was lamenting at a family gathering that I had no idea what to do next. My brother said I should get my teaching degree and come work with him in Eskasoni. Turns out, I did pretty much just that. And twenty years later I received a mug from a grateful student.
During the evening, I experienced my own little sense of come aroundedness. I had a chance to speak with my very own grade primary teacher. She had mentioned to my sister-in-law that she had wanted to meet me after all these years and tell me how much she enjoyed reading my pieces in the paper. And in an odd twist of timing, I received an e-mail a few days later from a student who I myself had taught in Eskasoni. She wanted to tell me how she, now a teacher, had used a piece I had written in her own grade eight class.
All of which started, of course, with a life long educator recruiting me into the profession he loved.
To teach is, indeed, to touch lives forever. Hundreds, upon hundreds upon hundreds of lives. Call it hokey, call it cheesy, say it ain’t so. But it is what keeps us going at the end of the day, and what brings us back the next. And when it is my turn to hang up my tie, I hope I can say that I have done as much good in my career as my brother has done in his.
So here’s a glass to him, folks. And, indeed, to all teachers everywhere. May we all continue to touch lives long after the speeches have ended, and long after the last of the revelers, wherever they have gathered, have finally tottered on home.