The Power of a Teacher

“He soon felt that the fulfillment of his desires gave him only one grain of the mountain of happiness he had expected. This fulfillment showed him the eternal error men make in imagining that their happiness depends on the realization of their desires.”  -Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina.

The first novel we read in my high school English class that year. The writing and story captivated me. I ditched my other work so that I could keep reading. I still remember the day that I read the scene about Anna at the train station. I dropped the book on my bed and said, “What?! How could this happen? What kind of story is this?”

I stuffed the novel into my back pack, excited to join the discussion the next day in class. The teacher, however, disagreed with everything I had to say. I eagerly raised my hand to share my thoughts on a particular scene, only to met with, “Um no, Lori, that’s not it.” As the semester progressed, I continued to volunteer my thoughts on other novels, hoping one answer might be affirmed or accepted. That never happened. It became a running joke with my friends as they would pass me in the hall and quip, “Um no, Lori, that’s not it.” We laughed and joked that if the teacher held up a red book and asked what color it was, even my answer of “red” would be wrong. Eventually I stopped talking in the class. I accepted that even though I loved literature, my thoughts weren’t intellectual enough or smart enough to share.

I avoided some English classes in college, and it took me years to become convinced that it was ok to pursue a subject I loved, even if my answers weren’t right. Even to this day, I feel that nervousness bubbling up when someone asks what I think about something I have read.

Teachers have great power, don’t they?

Fortunately, during that same season, other teachers encouraged me to ask questions and gave me the freedom to share my thoughts, even if they didn’t agree with them. I would leave my English class and head across the hall to Philosophy where my teacher, Steve Lawler, would be waiting to discuss books like Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In that class, I never felt afraid to share my thoughts. In fact, I felt the freedom to express confusion, anger, and to ask many questions.

Steve Lawler was the chaplain at my school; “Father Lawler,” or “Fa La La La” as we affectionately called him. I spent a lot of time processing with him about literature, but also about my growing faith, and he kindly offered not only guidance but a willingness to listen. Never once did he say, “Um, no, Lori, that’s not it.” He just encouraged my search and my questions and gave me confidence that it really is ok to wrestle and think and not have all of the answers.

As I consider the difference between these two teachers, I think “respect” comes to mind. Father Lawler showed me respect. He may not have always agreed with my interpretation or my understanding of a specific passage we discussed in class, but he respected my efforts and that helped me to grow.

It is quite possible that every interpretation I had of Anna Karenina was wrong that year. It just feels important as a past teacher and current parent to consider what it looks like to lead a child even when you don’t agree with their observations or opinions. I am grateful for people like Steve Lawler who helped me to love learning and who taught me that there really is a better way to teach than, “Um, no that’s not it.”