Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. The night before Thanksgiving 2016.
I am dining at a posh Italian restaurant just two blocks from the famed Richard Rodgers Theatre. At the table are my wife, three children, and a former student who sat in my World History class over sixteen years ago.
Before I explain the details of the gathering, it is important to note at the outset that, in retrospect, I consider this dinner to be, perhaps, one of the highlights of my life. The reason has nothing to do with the awkwardly loquacious waiter or the exquisite pasta we consumed that night. Instead, it has everything to do with the fact that this dinner served as a brief but lovely intersection of virtually everything I revere and love in this life:
The ineffable affection I feel for my extraordinary family.
My passion for teaching and the faith I have in the power of the classroom to transform lives.
My unwavering hopes of watching students achieve their own dreams.
My reverence for America and the fire of potentiality it never fails to stoke.
You see, this wasn’t just any former student and it wasn’t a mere coincidence that we were eating just a few blocks from Broadway. My former student, Voltaire Wade-Greene, is an original cast member of perhaps the greatest American artistic triumph in the past decade, Lin Manuel Miranda’s resplendent Broadway smash, Hamilton: An American Musical.
In my memory, however, Voltaire is still a somewhat awkward but extraordinarily kind 14-year-old freshman high school student. He is a wonderful mental relic from the beginning of my teaching career, a young man with a ubiquitous smile who never uttered a negative word or sentiment about anyone or anything. I was a young teacher when he sat in my classroom, a newly wed with no children and no sense of where my teaching career might lead me someday. Indeed, I was a neophyte to adult life itself, gleeful to simply have a job and only vaguely aware of just how much I would grow to love the life of a teacher.
Voltaire is now a thirty year-year old man and yet he still radiates a glow of authentic humility and kindness. It quickly becomes apparent that he has grown to be impressively urbane and cerebral. He regales my two daughters—who have been singing/rapping/speaking the words from Hamilton, ad infinitum, for months now—with tales about celebrities who come back stage, the serpentine tale of how he came to be in the show, and what life is like when one is a part of a certified cultural phenomenon. My oldest daughter teeters on the border of tears when he starts the meal by announcing that he has come “bearing gifts,” and presents everyone in my family with a copy of the Hamilton Playbill bearing the autographs of the cast on the cover.
Indeed, Voltaire has hung out with President Obama, performed at the Tony Awards, and has been in the presence of everyone from Mike Tyson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar to Ben Stiller and Madonna. We laugh about his time in my class and of my antics as a young teacher.
But there was something else about this older and impressive Voltaire that I found utterly exalting and laudatory, something it has taken me a few days to recognize and mentally digest. During our conversation he didn’t simply remember a few details from specific lessons or recall the finer points of the World History curriculum. No, he remembered many of my words verbatim, as if they had been etched into a Greek column instead of written on a chalkboard, more Delphic oracle than novice high school teacher. He passionately quoted back to me expressions and lessons that had particularly impressed him, utterances that I honestly do not even remember making.
I was already thankful to Voltaire for giving my family and me the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend Hamilton in New York City. The power of the play is almost beyond elucidation for those of us who are unabashed lovers of the American creed, who are apostles of this experiment in self-government, and who truly believe that the advent of liberal democracy is perhaps the greatest development in all of human history.
But as I reflect on the day my family and I attended Hamilton, my thoughts turn not to a towering historic figure, but to my former student and friend.
Without realizing it, since Voltaire has left my classroom I have lowered my expectations of what education can and should be. My younger self would have expected him to remember and recall impactful classroom moments and articulate how the lessons of human history affected him for the better. However, after a decade of teaching in an era of high stakes testing—for both state tests and Advanced Placement exams—I now realize how timid I have become in middle age, how saturated I now am in the membrane of pedagogic practicality.
Would Voltaire even recognize this forty-year old teacher who now plays it safe, never venturing too far from the curriculum or the syllabus? Saint Paul used the Areopagus to prod the slumbering souls of Athens. Cicero stood at the rostrum to jar the ennui out of his fellow Romans. Great teachers use their classrooms to lionize the consequential and substantial elements of life, hoping to forge horizons of higher purpose within their students. Somewhere along the way I have come to expect my students to forget most of the content I teach, cynically assuming many of them are more Machiavellian test-takers than Socratic truth-seekers. In the midst of my conversation with Voltaire, I was reminded of the youthful optimism and vitality I once embraced at the dawn of my teaching career, believing that one day, one class, or one lesson might transform the life of a student.
Perhaps I had forgotten what I once knew to be true: education is not a form of secular sermonizing nor is it a therapeutic conditioning of one’s students to set sanitized goals or pursue prosaic passions. Education, at its best, is expansive and aspirational in nature, pushing the intellectual and emotional frontiers of what young people know or are comfortable considering, all in the hopes of ennobling their character and cultivating their minds.
But beyond his kind words and generosity, Voltaire’s success is a powerful reminder that all students are a work in progress. In a truly democratic chorus, a teacher never knows whose voice will someday rise above the rest, whose words will resonate or whose actions will inspire. Indeed, it is not always the valedictorian who writes the great American novel. It is not always the test-taking maestros who show the most grit or who embrace the most arduous grind. Often it is the student who labors in quiet isolation, whose imagination is unformed but vast. It is the student who asks the earnest question, not the one who exudes haughty certainty.
One never knows what will become of our students as they grow and mature. But once in a while the faith of a teacher is vindicated by the radiance of a former student’s words and character. My dinner with Voltaire was a poignant and powerful reminder that as I reach the mid-point of my career I should embody the spirit of Hamilton, a spirit that was perpetually “young, scrappy, and hungry.”