The Teachers Who Change Our Lives

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I graduated from high school as a failed student. When I describe the state of my education from that time I borrow a line from the Woody Allen film Love and Death because “I couldn’t write my name in the ground with a stick.” Now I could tell a story about all the teachers who let me down, which is something I hear all the time at hearings from people speaking up for high standards, common core and the test prep factories of charter schools. They talk about their resentment at arriving in college unprepared, with deficient skills and in need of remediation. But I’m not going to tell that story.

I grew up with a constellation of learning disabilities and was labeled an underachiever in the third grade. In reality, given my resistance, my inattentiveness, my issues with executive function which dog me to this day, I was unteachable. Many will say that’s an impossibility, but to this day, nothing has ever convinced me that I was present and able to be educated beyond what I was willing to take in. The expectations of school were all avoidance for me. I simply saw no value in it and I couldn’t marshal the personal resources to force myself to fit in.

One afternoon, in ninth grade, I was stranded at school because I missed the bus home, and I was waiting for a ride with a friend. He was on the stage crew for The Sound of Music, the spring musical that was being staged at school. He asked me to tag along and help him, so I did. I was small so I could hide under the stage of the outdoor amphitheater, and when the lights went down I’d race out to place props and move sets around. I had a lot of fun doing this, it was exciting, with the music, the singing and everyone taking it all very seriously. At the end of the night I was standing up on the stage waiting for my friend to drive me home when a teacher, Eileen Daniel Riddle walked up to me and asked what I was doing. I mumbled something about waiting for my ride, and she looked at me, then walked away. Moments later she came back with a broom and handing it to me, asked if I would sweep the stage.

She handed me a broom.

From that night on I worked on every play until I graduated. I rarely had time to hang out with my old friends who spent their time rearranging their body chemistry on a molecular level. I couldn’t get enough theater. I had never seen a professional production; I had no aspirations of being involved in theater. I just loved the connection, and belonging to something bigger than myself. I loved building sets, hanging lights, moving flats, and everything that had anything to do with putting on plays and musicals. Fortunately for me, I went to a school that could provide the experience of mounting theatrical productions four or five times a year. My life revolved around that schedule. Eileen was a tough taskmaster and the expectations were high, but she nurtured the desire in me and gave my life shape. That desire propelled me into college, because it was the only place where I could continue working in the community of theater. Once in college I learned to write because I needed the skills in order to develop a real grasp of how stories are told, how the design of a production is lifted from the pages of a script, and how to analyze the themes, the plot, the characters and demands needed to transform a play on paper into a production on a stage, or in a film.

I had a teacher in high school who handed me a broom and in doing so, inspired me to harness my intelligence to service my passion. She was a dedicated high school Theater Arts teacher, and she saved my life. This is what I take away from my failed educational experience, immense gratitude for a teacher who showed me something I’d never seen before, and it became the guiding force in my life.

We live in a time where the teaching profession is so maligned and education budgets have been stripped bare. The Arts have been eliminated in favor of a dirt dry, common core aligned test prep curriculum. So in order to remind parents about the need for solid creative programs in public education and in gratitude to teachers who give so much to our kids, in November I’m shooting a short documentary, interviewing former students and their mentor teachers about the ways in which teachers impact the lives of their students. I’m offering a group of adults the chance to thank the teacher who had such a powerful influence on the shape of their life, and share the story of how it unfolded. Over the years so many people have told me stories about a teacher who changed their life. It may not be the idealized version of some teacher we dream of for our children. For me, this was a tough relationship, born of adversity and failure, where I was lucky enough to encounter a teacher who could meet me where I was, without judgment, but with the inspiration that I needed. All it took was one. If you have a story, and want to share it with that former teacher, visit my Facebook page, Shoot4Education and leave me a message.

Follow Michael Elliot on Twitter: www.twitter.com/shoot4education

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