Growing up, I remember learning about Benjamin Franklin explaining life’s assurances: “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” He was explaining to a French pen pal that the American experiment was as raw as it was unpredictable. The Constitution and our fledgling country were trees in the desert, and Franklin, easily the oldest of the Founders, was around little longer to see the fruits of the Founders’ labor. Now 220+ years later, that experiment has added a new certainty – education. Every person in this country can still expect death and taxes, but now they can also expect to receive a compulsory education.
There are two routes we can go from here. We can excoriate. How? Many people seem to feel that all three of these certainties are synonymous with one another. Death is caused by taxes which is caused by education. Read your local newspaper, or, better yet, find its online version and peer at the reader comments on education, and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
The second route we can take is to appreciate the common bond we share in receiving an education. When this country was founded in Franklin’s era, education was reserved for those who lived close enough to one another (New England), close enough to a house of God (Mid-Atlantic), or close enough to wealth (South). In 2017, we’ll celebrate 100 years of compulsory education, and, in that time, everyone in this country has shared one thing – a teacher who has changed their lives.
Something special gleans in a person’s eye when you ask them about their favorite teacher. Many of these educators have touted their subject with such strength and tenacity that they have moved us enough to make a profession of it. Others have instead instilled a surfeit amount of character. Some we’ve never had in class. Some we’ve had in class multiple times or over multiple years. But, the best part about it – since 1917 – our favorite teachers have had pronounced impact on our lives.
My favorite teacher did more than just teach me English – Mr. Rick Morgans saved my life. At my poor, rural high school, I was equal parts runt and grunt. I’d find ways to repulse just about every person at the head of the classroom, and many teachers had no patience for me. Not this man. When I first had Mr. Morgans in 10th grade, he told me I had a fantastic manner of writing (in a creative writing and poetry class) and speaking (public speaking class), and pulled me aside to give me more pointers to increase these strengths. No one had ever done that for me.
When I was in 11th grade, Mr. Morgans asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t have an answer; I thought I would work at the local fire engine factory like the rest of the town. He took it upon himself to take me to visit three different colleges for three straight weekends, and helped me sign up for the SAT. With his help, I nearly aced it. I had the pick of my colleges, and was firmly placed in life’s launching chair.
Fourteen years later, I’m that English (and Social Studies) teacher. Now I’m that man (hopefully) making positive impact in the lives of young men and women. Their inspiration equals my responsibility.
During that time, I still make it a point to contact Mr. Morgans every 3-4 months. In doing so, we’ve had many great conversations. We’ve talked policy and memories; budgets and baseball; the future and the past. I hope every student – not just those that have gone on to become educators themselves – contacts those teachers who’ve made that resounding impact on their lives.
You see, there’s been such a stress on “paying it forward” that we forget to “pay it backward.” There’s been such a tethering on the future of education that we forget those who are in its present, and, to an extent, its past. We are who we’ve become because of the people standing in the corridors of our lives, showing us the doors to our future. Your favorite teacher (stands) stood at the cusp of that first manifold and held many of those keys. Don’t forget them. Some of them might have even saved your life – thwarting death and taxes with an education.
Jake Miller is a middle school social studies and English teacher in central Pennsylvania. You can follow him on Twitter @MrJakeMiller