Potential — a wide open future — is the image of young children walking to school.
I, a retired teacher, was driving to the train station for a trip into Boston, passing through the neighborhoods at a time when I once would have been heading to school myself. Streams of children made their way toward another day of learning and growth.
Potential, of course, is a relative thing of many directions and distances. Potential is shaped by many forces — genetics, home environment, quality of school, peer groups, medical complications, accidents, acts of kindness, acts of ill-intent, connections to the right people, hard work, pure luck, persistence …
But, at least to the outsider driving by, the potential loomed so grand in the smiling faces of two young girls, backpacks stuffed with books, happily chatting on their way to school.
Perhaps this was the high point of their day. Perhaps it would come in school. Perhaps it would be the recap of the day on the walk home. Or a phone call in the evening.
A young boy, without books, approached the school from the opposite direction — on a skateboard — with, one would suspect, a different potential. But one never knows what burns within, what passion is kindled within school or, as is often the case, from an outside source.
I passed the parking lot, filled with the cars of teachers whose job it is to identify and nurture the potential. Some young people are already racing down a path of excellence, and we as teachers almost stay out of their way. Others will need a little nudge, whether in instruction or guidance. With others, a deeper bond will be necessary to bring out a belief in potential. With some, stand-by patience will allow potential to emerge in the future.
A teacher orchestrates the lives of young people, knowing, of course, that outside factors both accelerate and sidetrack the process.
What was on the mind of a young girl walking to school, a young man skateboarding to the same destination? What dream? What burden? What pride? What shame? What inspiration? What despair?
One hoped that a special teacher awaited, one who would kindle the creative or defuse the despair. One teacher will not serve this role for all, but each teacher must serve it for some. Usually that happens, often in unusual and unexpected ways.
I thought back over my own school years and saw a rough and tumble football coach who would also be my English teacher and, years later, my first principal as I myself became a teacher.
I could visualize him — loud, demanding, demonstrative and inspiring — standing on the seven-man blocking sled, barking out orders. What he inspired was a touch of fear, a touch of pride, a touch of loyalty. Somehow, we wanted to please him.
I could still remember him in those English classes, leaning back in his chair, his hands clasped behind his head, pouring that same enthusiasm into the literature or the writing assignment at hand.
And I could still remember that as a principal he took a chance in hiring me as a non-certified, inexperienced teacher of science and physical education at a residential school for juvenile offenders in Dorchester. That path, as Robert Frost once wrote, made all the difference. I found my focus in life. The influence of this teacher lives on, though he is now gone.
When I think back over my own teaching career, when I wonder if I did enough, I see individual faces. Some, I suppose, I did not reach and teach, and I hope that there was someone else out there who did. Then I begin to think of those with whom I did connect.
To know that I mattered in the lives of some young people tells me that my life has been meaningful. What better affirmation?
I think of a young man, a special education student, who once said, “If you had done something as long as I have and weren’t any good at it, you wouldn’t like school either.” But he persisted. He flowered late, eventually graduating from college.
“I know that I was a pain in the butt,” he would write, “but I just wanted you to know that I appreciate all that you did for me. I don’t think I would be where I am today if it wasn’t for you. I don’t think I would be graduating.”
I think of a young lady, back for a visit, who gave me a big smile — “It’s so good to see you!”
She asked if I had received her note from the previous spring. I produced it from my desk drawer. How could I ever have thrown it away?
“It seemed that whenever I had a dilemma, whether it was with schoolwork, teachers or my own little problems, I would go running in your direction,” read the note. “You always made me feel better about things, and I thank you so much for that. I’ll never forget you.”
Oh, yes. The potential of two young girls walking to school. The potential of a young skateboarder. The potential of a teaching career.
Stuart Deane lives in Newburyport.