brucekluger.com

    USA Today, June 19, 2007

    How teachers inspire
    It’s not by delivering lessons, but by engaging life’s lessons. For the millions
    of children who will leave their classroomsfor the last timethis month, an
    educator’s good heart or rich mind will have planted a seed—one that may
    sprout years after the last school bell has sounded.

    By Bruce Kluger


    My 12-year-old daughter's teacher, Prema,
    begins class each morning by ringing a bell—
    not the clang-clang bell of a prairie
    schoolhouse, but a small golden bowl and
    mallet whose gentle gong sounds almost
    spiritual, like strains from a Buddhist
    ceremony. She calls this ritual the "peace
    bell," and it announces to her students that
    they are about to embark once again on the
    enchanting journey of education.

    And in Room 606, learning is a journey, as
    Prema attentively guides her kids through the
    usual workload—from math to Mesopotamia—
    while tucking valuable life lessons into almost
    every subject she teaches. She has taken the children to a mock refugee camp in
    Central Park (sponsored by Doctors Without Borders). She leads thoughtful class
    discussions about cultural stereotypes. And she handpicks her students' books,
    based on their individual interests.

    "Prema is the best teacher I've had in my life," Bridgette tells me. "She's the best
    teacher I'll ever have."

    This month, more than 55 million elementary and secondary school students across
    America will complete their classes, a beloved rite-of-passage that honors our
    children for clearing yet another path in the rich forest of education. Most
    newspapers will undoubtedly use this event to talk about the nuts-and-bolts of
    teaching—from crunching budgets to narrowing achievement gaps to debating
    those blasted standardized tests.

    But I'd like to think that it's also an opportunity to celebrate the way that teachers—
    good teachers—can provide that one commodity you won't find in a textbook or a
    Board of Ed spreadsheet: inspiration.

    Although my school days are as distant a memory to me as my first date, I can
    vividly recall a few magic moments in learning, when I was lucky enough to be in the
    presence of an educator who taught from the heart.

    On the first day of seventh grade, Miss Smolkin announced to our class, "You're
    not in elementary school anymore. This is junior high—if I could control your
    breathing, I would." Naturally, we were terrified of this woman—that is, until Day
    Two, when, having gotten our attention, she went on to become the most exciting
    social studies teacher I would ever have.

    Natalie Smolkin made learning about the world cool—plastering the walls with
    colorful maps and charts; asking us to create our own countries (with whatever
    types of government we chose!); and routinely turning our pre-test reviews into
    classwide Jeopardy competitions.

    With Miss Smolkin, learning wasn't just something you did between lunch and
    recess. It was the thing that made you race back to her classroom.

    Two years later, Calvin Statham barreled into my world and quickly showed me that
    learning is also about taking chances. Tall, wildly dressed and perpetually in
    motion, Mr. Statham was the school's chorus teacher, and he taught the same way
    he banged out the blues on the piano—with passion. Before I knew it, Mr. Statham
    had yanked me from the back row of the tenor section and cast me in a lead role in
    the school musical.

    This was no random selection: Somehow, this wily and wonderful teacher had
    detected in me a soul-deep love of music. By tossing me into the thick of the action,
    he taught me that we are limited only by our fears—a lesson, I'd soon discover, that
    reached far beyond the walls of the school auditorium. Mr. Statham also reminded
    me to listen carefully for the music in our everyday lives. I still do that today.

    But of all my school-day memories, the one that remains most indelible didn't occur
    in a classroom. It happened in the gym.

    Mr. Hopewell (first name still unknown) was the only black teacher in our suburban
    Baltimore elementary school—indeed, the first black person many of us had ever
    known. Like most gym teachers, he put our small bodies through the paces,
    whether on the battlefield of the dodge ball court or tumbling across the mats that
    blanketed the gym floor.

    But one piece of exercise equipment stood out from the rest: the thick climbing rope
    that dangled from the rafters a million miles above us. According to Mr. Hopewell's
    rules, if you were skillful enough to hoist yourself to the top of that rope, he'd toss
    you a magic marker and allow you to sign your name on the ceiling. I tried many
    times, but always fell short.

    Then, on the day that I graduated from sixth grade—39 years ago this month—I
    took my final stab at the summit, and I made it. Not only was the physical
    accomplishment exhilarating to me, but short of affixing my signature to my
    children's birth certificates a quarter-century later, I would never again feel such a
    rush of pride by simply signing my name.

    Did Mr. Hopewell know that this basic exercise in agility was, in truth, a giant lesson
    in perseverance and self-esteem? Of course, he did. He was a teacher.

    To all the boys and girls across the country who made their own climbs this year,
    may you continue to find your way to the top—and if you can't, may you keep trying.

    And to all the marvelous teachers who spend their days and nights marking papers,
    reading book reports and opening our children's eyes and minds just a little wider,
    thank you again for another job well done.

    See you in September.


    (Illustration by Sam Ward, USA TODAY)