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Almost every morning of my life, I have a conversation with one of my best friends in the world.
His name is Craig.
Our conversations wander. I never really know what our serpentine dialectics will yield. But there is one thing I know for sure: these conversations over the past five years have made me a better teacher.
The similarities between the two of us are startling:
* I teach AP Government to seniors and World History to sophomores. He teaches AP European history to sophomores and AP United States history to juniors.
* We both attended liberal arts colleges (and believe in the superiority of a liberal arts education to the dismay of our STEM-obsessed students and colleagues). We were both rejected from Thomas Jefferson’s alma mater, The College of William & Mary. We tell ourselves it was only because we were applying from out of state and William & Mary is a state school.
* We both have adopted children and got married when we were twenty-three years old.
* Craig is Catholic. I am Anglican (which, let’s be honest, is just Catholicism without the Pope).
* We are both passionately moderate in our politics, abhorring both the dogmas of the far right and extreme left.
* We both teach to disadvantaged populations but refuse to view our students as victims of circumstance or pawns of historic happenstance. We love when students demonstrate a passion for learning and are equally abhorred by a youthful and all-to-common zeal for cynicism.
* We read many of the same books and discuss them fervently.
* Most of all, we both believe in power of “the examined life” and believe any life, under honest and intense scrutiny, should brim with both humility and wonderment. The name of this process of examination, after all, is “education.”
This isn’t to say we don’t have our disagreements, at times. He doesn’t have a special affinity for John F. Kennedy yet JFK was my father’s hero. I think Ian McEwan’s Atonement is the finest modern novel written in a half-century and, in fact, will be an article of Western culture that is celebrated far into the future. Craig found it somewhat banal. I love Pepsi Max, he prefers Coke Zero.
Our friendship has helped me to realize that the journey of a teacher is a funny thing. Somewhere on a timeline of teachers’ careers—maybe in their late 30’s or early 40’s—the men and women standing in front of the classroom make the powerful and penetrating realization that they are never going to be particularly famous or widely celebrated. They are never going to be spectacularly wealthy.
Schools will never bear their name nor will college campuses have buildings emblazed with their initials on the front of them. Their names will not grace history books. Their opinions will never be eagerly sought by critics of high culture or endorsed by masses of a lower one.
Nor will the narrative of their life’s story parallel the heroic archetypes of greatness portrayed in movies or captured in the theatre of canonical literature.
In short, the external fixtures of vivid and demonstrative success will never be planted within the broader contours of their daily efforts to educate their students.
Once a teacher has come to accept, or hopefully even welcome, the modest ambitions of middle age, there is something both exquisite and liberating about realizing that the difference a teacher can make to his students is usually not quantifiable through one’s salary or level of notoriety. To marry enchantment to learning or simply broaden the curtain of life to a student whose opportunities have been scarce, surpasses the hollow celebrations of success that one seeks in one’s youth.
As David Brooks has observed, there is a difference between a “successful life” and a “significant one.” Success without contribution and ambition without the enrichment of others is to hum a song whose melody is ever fleeting.
To make a difference that matters, to be “significant,” to share in the delight of learning or furbish the mind with the trappings of knowledge and virtue, is a task so colossal in scope that it often requires the help of another.
It is here that teaching with a true and honest friend pays dividends aplenty. Craig will tell me when I am being touchy or stubborn. He will take a good idea and make it great. He will listen when I am frustrated, facilitate when I am inspired, and most of all, sympathize when my classroom ambitions fail to materialize into a reality.
Friendships take many forms and their color and contour change as the seasons of life progress towards the winter of existence. My twenties were a time when I began my marriage and career, when I bought my first home and became a father for the first time. Indeed, everyone who builds these life foundations must spend many a year as a workman, learning their craft, honing their personal relationships, adjusting their ambitions of what life can and should be.
And yet, if there is to be any poetry in our walk, any moments that transcend the ordinary and pulse with power and purpose, one must learn to push beyond the rudimentary and embrace the possibilities that come with maturity.
Craig has been a portal to these possibilities. Our friendship is greater than our collaborative efforts as teachers, and yet it should not be forgotten that without his friendship my Advanced Placement program would be a sliver of what it is today. My foray into social media would never have occurred. And most of all, the most ambitious project of my professional life—the writing of a book about teaching and learning—would never have taken flight.
For all of the talk of “collaboration” in professional development, the best collaboration is one that is not tediously oriented around the necessities of our profession. No, the best collaboration is an intensive friendship oriented around the hopes of finding and enjoying the good life. It is here, in the context of friendship and affection, that the proper role of work in the taxonomy of life will find its proper position.
Here our work as teachers will flourish and prosper, not because the life of the teacher is a necessity, but because the life of a teacher is pregnant with the splendors of a meaningful and substantive life.
To enrich life. To nurture dreams. To take part in the ripening of the heart and mind of other human beings is a glory that only a teacher can know.
I know this because I teach with a great friend. If only every teacher were so fortunate.