At the time I graduated from eighth grade, “googol” was still just a number.
If someone had told me then that my children would one day carry in their pockets small devices with tiny motors, called search engines, that could pull from the air any fact I had acquired in nine years of schooling, would I have believed it?
I knew that doubting possibilities was considered old-fashioned. We’d seen the space shuttle Columbia make its first landing that year—watched it live on the school’s TV. When our teacher told us a couple of days later that his grandma, whose birth predated Kittyhawk, refused to be convinced that a spacecraft could glide back to earth like an airplane, we’d laughed at the thought of that woman calling her television a big, fat liar.
And I wasn’t like her.
So it’s more probable that I’d have wondered how those little “knowledge catchers” would change education when teachers no longer had any reasons to make kids learn things. That’s the sort of thinking that occurs when the chunks of school knowledge are still floating around the pot in raw form.1
As I look over it now, though, what’s still with me after thirty years, I see two kinds of learning. There’s the type that could be found through a Google search–such as what brought about the Civil War or how to draw a picture in perspective—and another kind of learning that transcends online quests. The “nonsearchable” learning amounts to the perceptions and attitudes that formed along the journey. The way I see the world, in other words, has been colored by those who delivered that world to me, through their teaching. Come to think of it, the sum total of my school learning isn’t merely a mixture of knowledge and perceptions; it’s a brew. The two are inseparable.
If you lost me there, stick around. Allow me to illustrate through snapshots of some teachers who impacted me in ways that Google could not. When my seventh grade Bible teacher became upset, his comb-over would slip out of place and fly around; and he could rattle the windows with his thundering voice. But mostly he channeled that passion into teaching. Mr. Vanden Berg didn’t have time for lectures about why we should read the Bible; such talk would have stood in the way of the stories themselves. Ten minutes into any particular lesson, we didn’t care about reasons for learning Bible—at least not the logical reasons. We were too caught up in the plot twists, the ironies, and the subtle humor to think of asking the teacher when we would ever use this stuff. Even when I read portions of Scripture today, that man’s voice is still there in my head, speaking the print into life.
As I write this article, the maple tree up my street is beginning to smolder. In a couple of weeks it will burst into autumn flame, and then the blaze will spread to the trees around it. I don’t know why that one on the corner is always the first to go, but I have a hunch about why those sorts of things grab my attention: Mrs. Eekhoff, my second grade teacher.
I never really noticed the colors of fall until the day I saw Mrs. Eekhoff notice them. What she said—when she walked out of school that morning and looked up—escapes me now. But I can still see her mouth drop open and her face break into a smile. It was people like her who opened my eyes to the dazzlements of creation. To them, subject matter was more than information; it called for a response. And teachers’ reactions, when sincere, are often contagious—like that tree on the corner that seems to ignite the ones around it.
Miss Arends could take on any jock on the basketball court, and she could motivate junior high kids to sing. The first of those abilities was impressive, but the second should rank somewhere near walking on water. What was her method? Something about her eyes, I think. They could see things, like the way a diminuendo—if we sang it right—would quiet the babies in the back row of the auditorium. As she spoke those images in choir rehearsals, she would look intently at each of us, then through us, until suddenly we could see it, too. And the next thing you knew, we were making the sound she wanted to hear.
Lastly, there was Miss Lubbers, the sixth grade teacher who refused to accept my excuses for unfinished work. I had the organizational skills of a tornado in those days, stuffing worksheets between the pages of random books and leaving uneaten fruit to rot in the bottom of my desk. As a result, I often forgot to complete assignments, and my grades took a plunge.
There was a logical explanation for the drop: I was slow. But Miss Lubbers wouldn’t buy that excuse either. After detaining me for countless recess breaks to finish incomplete work, she threatened to make me repeat sixth grade—not because I couldn’t learn but because I wasn’t doing the work. Was she telling the truth? I never found out, but the prospect scared the wits out of me. I set a goal of completing every assignment on time, and doing it well. My marks started to improve, and in subsequent years they excelled. Because of Miss Lubbers’ persistence I became aware that I could learn difficult things, and that I could finish projects I started.
Today I am grateful that I can find–without leaving the computer in front of me—more than 50 English versions of the Bible, information about why leaves change color in the fall, definitions for musical terms, and self-help plans for getting organized. But I have my teachers to thank for showing me why any of those things really matter.