When actor Alan Rickman died earlier this year, teens around the globe mourned the character he brought to life for us, perhaps the most disliked teacher of all time, Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series. As National Teacher Appreciation Week is upon us, it seemed to me an appropriate time to consider Snape and his compatriots.
I recall sitting in my math class as a freshman, listening to a man with a strong German accent. Right in front of me a poster board read “Doc’s Four Rules,” and the first rule was, “Don’t trust your math teacher, a calculator, or the computer. Only trust yourself.” Huh? Wasn’t my math teacher supposed to teach me? It turns out I was sitting in a geometry class taught by a teacher who used the Socratic method. Every question we posed was left unanswered by Doc, and every test covered information we hadn’t learned. My peers strongly disliked this style; one time I even heard someone call him “Snape,” and I nodded in agreement. By second semester, though, I started to piece together what Doc’s class was really about and why it was so important. I realized that my grappling with different questions rendered an answer that was arrived at on my own. I was supposed to only trust myself because I was the only one who knew how to ask the exact questions that would benefit my understanding. Doc had me thinking in a new way that was not like anything I had experienced before, and it wasn’t only in my math class that I started using this new mindset.
Doc made me realize that if I asked the right questions and allowed my curiosity to be my guide, that I could truly accomplish anything. So as a ninth grader who loved math but was simultaneously infatuated by history, I found another mentor who also fostered my inquisitiveness. My history teacher allowed me to go outside the scope of our spring research paper and focus it on my newly sparked interest in Socrates. I read book after book, and each time I felt myself sympathizing with the philosopher. I could not fathom the idea that the promoter of knowledge and learning was put to death for corrupting minds with his teaching. The curiosity that was inspired by Doc was completely manifested in Socrates’s statement that “wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” I drew the connection that just as Socrates was put to death because people did not understand and accept the knowledge he was trying to instill in the youth, Doc was disliked for the same reasons. It became difficult going into Doc’s class and not feeling sympathy for how he was portrayed as this evil man who did not look out for his students’ well being -- a man people thought was there just to torture them.
As an avid fan of the Harry Potter series, I was very sympathetic the next time I heard someone refer to Doc as “Snape.” I thought to myself that this peer must not have read the last book in the series or seen the last movie, because if he had, he would have known that Severus Snape was perhaps the bravest character of all. Throughout the series, Snape appeared as a villain out to get Harry Potter, a student seemingly chosen at random to be the one person able to defeat Voldemort. Snape carried a façade of hatred, but in reality, his motive in life was to protect the son -- Harry -- of the love of his life. At the end of the final book, Snape’s true motives are revealed; he was Harry’s guardian even though Harry did not know so until Snape’s death. Without Snape’s stern mask, Harry would not be shaped into the leader he was at the end of the series. From Snape, Harry learned to fight for what he was most passionate about and to question authority. Snape was there for the benefit of Harry’s growth, never getting any recognition. Snape did not just tell Harry how to be a leader – this would not have been effective. The journey that Snape put Harry on was a painful one, but the series of challenges and posing the right questions was the best way to help Harry truly learn.
These three figures -- Snape, Socrates and Doc -- have helped me see that the teachers who make your lives more difficult might actually be the ones who are teaching you the most. There is pain along the way in learning, and maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to try to avoid it. It’s not the pain of an increased workload we need, but instead a chance to actually think on our own. We need to be allowed to focus on our thought process, not only its outcome. Each of these mentors has given me the understanding that knowledge and growth can be difficult and even at times feel like torture. But it seems to me that true learning happens when you are right outside your comfort zone, letting your sense of wonder guide you. Before you slam your tough teacher on some online ratings site, consider that you might not appreciate them for what they have done for you until later, and realize that, like Snape, they sacrificed for your betterment.