Sometimes that tiny spark is difficult to spot. It takes patience, training, diligence and trust to coax it out. You have to believe in the mission and possess the uncanny ability to gaze into the future to visualize the outcome. It's like trudging through the deep, murky, filthy mines chiseling coal till you fracture that one stubborn rock and glimpse at its shimmering diamond heart. A brilliant teacher and mentor takes this task on with brave resilience and passion establishing an immeasurable difference and lifelong imprint on their students.
Robert Frost remarked, "There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can't move, and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies." Whether you have experienced one or both of these types of teachers, it certainly leaves an enduring impression that can either propel your journey forward or keep you frozen and hesitant. For me, it was Mac who gently nudged me to soar.
Mac was a legendary art teacher who instructed fourth through eighth graders for nearly thirty-five years. "Mr. MacDonald" was affectionately shortened to "Mac," much to his dismay. I once asked him how the nickname came about. "I don't know, but I'm gonna kill the little bugger who came up with it." He was lovable, jolly, a bit of a curmudgeon and one of the most beloved teachers at the school. Students always looked forward to the annual projects assigned to each grade. I wasn't a great art student, and I didn't have raw talent, but I loved taking his class, and we became fast friends.
His white hair dipped down in front in a large, distinct swirl and gently rested on his forehead. He would constantly push his thick, black glasses up the bridge of his nose and tap a long wooden ruler against the counter rhythmically. He wore a baby-blue smock that was littered with pins of various shapes, sizes, and sayings. If you got close enough, you could make out what the sarcastic text actually said. If you chatted too much in class, you were required to stay after and write fifty times on the chalkboard, "A closed mouth catches no flies." He was always willing to "assist" in a project, often crafting it into a masterpiece that could never be accomplished on your own, but that you admired and beamed at because you had a part in it too. I baked him oatmeal cookies for holiday occasions and celebrations of summer vacation, and he would explore flea markets for Disney memorabilia for my collection. He was like a wise old grandfather, but what I remember most is that he really believed in me.
A good teacher and mentor can make all the difference in the world. They encourage and lift you up. A detrimental instructor can sway you to doubt your worth, intelligence and future. Teaching is often undervalued, and yet it is one of the most vital professions. It is the vehicle that shapes our youth. In 2011 Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, and Jonah E. Rockoff studied the effects of teachers in "The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood." They defined a teacher's "value-added" as "the average test-score gain for his or her students, adjusted for differences across classrooms in student characteristics such as prior scores." They tracked one million children from fourth grade till adulthood. The data gathered demonstrated that students who had teachers with value-added were more successful than students who did not. These kids were more likely to attend universities, earn higher salaries, live in better areas and save more for retirement.
This study illustrates what we all fundamentally recognize about what great teachers can do for students if they care enough to invest and engage. It's hard to quantify what Mac did for me. His methods were subtle and tender and can't be condensed or defined in a formulaic recipe. But what he did was effortless and made a huge difference on my journey. It's been almost twenty-five years since he passed on, and yet I still think of him from time to time. I am lucky enough to still have a letter that he sent to me as I graduated and moved on to high school:
You are becoming an expert cookie maker. They are great and I am rationing myself to one a day to make them last as long as I can. Well, one phase of your schooling is over and new challenges remain. You will do your best as you always do. Give each new experience your best, but be happy with your success and happy in yourself. Thank you for being you.
Mac understood me. He peered into my soul and saw past my clumsiness, messy handwriting and shy demeanor. He knew my sparkle was buried deep within, and he pushed me to let it shine. He was loudly cheering for me in the grandstands and realized my potential when I couldn't even imagine getting through geometry class. I wish every student could have a teacher just like Mac. There is no telling what kind of positive impact that can have on a young mind and developing ego. I miss him, but when I re-read the letter, I can clearly picture his cheerful self in the baby-blue smock crunching on an oatmeal cookie. It makes me smile and grateful for the privilege of having known him, even though it was brief and so long ago.
Mac, thank you for being you.