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Imagine if you only had one day with your students: what would you say? What would you teach?
Would you simply carry on as if tomorrow were as certain as a sunset, taking attendance, unwrapping lessons, following standards and grading exams?
Or, more likely, are there things you want to tell your students that will echo for a lifetime? Would you mention things and speak words you have never had the courage or wherewithal to utter? Would you unite the imaginary teacher-self you always wanted to be with your actual self who stands in front of a classroom on a daily basis? If you only had one day left in a classroom would you put aside the curriculum and the pedagogy and teach in the spirit of a Socrates, a Jesus, or a Seneca, tying learning and life together into a single raw knot of existential urgency?
I imagine that every teacher has a day like this lurking deep in the sanctum of their teaching soul. Aristotle’s sentiment on poetry could just as easily apply to the one day each teacher has within them: “One’s style should be unlike that of ordinary language, for if it has the quality of remoteness, it will cause wonder and wonder is pleasant.”
I think the uniqueness of each and every teacher could be discerned by observing the grand diversity of “One Days”—give every teacher one day and these days would be as unique as a thumbprint or a genome.
For whatever reason—maybe the new year, maybe a macabre disposition triggered by the doldrums of winter—I have been thinking about my own “one day.”
On my “one day” I would aim as high as possible by explaining that education and all of its magisterial trappings—books, teachers, discussions, study, critical thought—is the best chance any of us will ever have for escaping the most potent cruelty of being a human being.
What is this cruelty, you ask? In short, we are given one life and within this one life a single set of eyes to observe the world, a single pair of ears to perceive the consonance and the discord, a singular brain to understand it all, and most of all, a single era situated within a single civilization. Indeed, how many thoughts can be captured by a single mind? How many emotions by a single heart? How many panoramas of pure beauty will never enter our field of sight? How many rhapsodic utterances of elegance and truth will bypass our busy, unnoticing ears?
Yes, my one day of teaching would be a muscular calling to encourage my students to overcome these singular limitations. I would beg, plead, and explain to them with the utmost of brio that the capacity to learn and grow is the only hope they have for overcoming the cruelty of our limitations.
How dull would the symphony of life be if we only played a single note? I would encourage them to read voraciously, travel widely, and befriend those who see the world differently. I would tell them that dreams should be big, temptations should be small, and once in a while it is acceptable to be disappointed with their lot in life, but never for too long.
I would tell them that habits and routines are the pathway to excellence but a truly extraordinary life should possess an occasional element of surprise. I would tell them to love their country but work hard to make it better because the magical melody of America is one that can be sung by all. I would tell them to think hard about words we rarely use nowadays—commitment, duty, obligation—because these links in our lives do more than tie us down, they unite us with longer chains of meaning and purpose.
As the one day of my teaching career drew to a close, I would wistfully walk to the window of my third floor classroom. I would stare down at the grassy courtyard. I am not sure what I would say in those fleeting moments but I hope it would be a message of radiating optimism. I hope my students would understand that life—for all of its cruelties and foibles—is a gift, no matter if it bestowed by Chance or God Himself. Gifts should be taken seriously because the nature of a gift is that they are not owed to anyone—gifts are given as expressions of gratitude.
I hope my students would learn to take their gifts seriously. Gifts come in all shapes and in all sizes but they should be enjoyed by all.
The great gift of my life is being a teacher. And even if I only have my students for a single day, I hope they know they are more than a gift to me…they are my treasure.