About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Friday, May 25, 2012

High School Reunion

            In my last post, I wrote about the current Teacher of the Year, Rebecca Mieliwocki. Ms. Mieliwocki is in the midst of her career, affecting the lives of students here and now. This week I’m writing about the influence of a teacher long past the time when that teacher’s work is done. It’s the kind of influence teachers hope to have.

            This post is a bit of a shaggy dog story, but I promise it has a punch line, maybe several.

            My high school class hasn’t been big on reunions, but it did just have one, the only one in decades. I wasn’t able to go, but if I could have, I might not have attended anyway. High school was not such a great time for me, and though by the time I graduated I had a close circle of buddies and, as well, had a few pals who were in the cool crowd, I felt pretty adrift until my senior year when I had the unbelievable luck of landing in Jack McFarland’s English class, the class that turned my life around. I remained close to those friends – though several have died – and I am still in touch with Mr. McFarland. Those connections aside, I have no desire to relive my high school days, all those feelings of anchorless yearning.

            I had heard through the grapevine about the reunion before I got the form letter announcing it. The letter was from Denny Grace, a guy who lettered in three sports and dated the homecoming queen. I knew Denny in high school –we were both in Mr. McFarland’s English class – but I doubt that we ever exchanged more than a few words in passing. Denny was a big deal, and I was, well, not on the fringes by my senior year, but certainly not in the high school groove. Once we graduated, I don’t believe I saw Denny again.

            At the bottom of that form letter, right under Denny’s signature, he wrote a sentence saying he had read one of my books and really liked it.  I stood there in my kitchen, looking at that eleven word sentence, surprised, touched, a little disoriented. I could picture Denny clearly. He sat three or four rows over from me in McFarland’s class, and the image I had was of the beginning of class, Denny in his long letterman’s sweater, laughing as he curled into his seat, big as life. And here he is now writing to me about something I wrote?! I felt like I was in a John Hughes movie.

            I remembered that Denny’s father owned a small construction company and was pretty sure that Denny worked for him. So a few days after receiving the letter, I wrote a letter back, explaining that I couldn’t come to the reunion and telling him how pleased I was that he liked the book. I mentioned the construction work and included with the letter a copy of my book on the cognition involved in a blue- collar and service work, The Mind at Work. A short time later I got a hand written letter from Denny in return commenting on the book:

I was in construction my entire life, and if you ever watched a tile setter tile a kitchen or see a finish carpenter hang a door or watch a carpenter cut roof joists, you would have a whole new outlook on what talent and smarts it takes to do those jobs.

After a billion years, Denny Grace and I, two people who led such different lives in high school, were forming a connection around reading. And here is where this digressive tale begins to set up its punch line.

Before Mr. McFarland’s class, Denny was not much of a reader, and though he certainly was an able student, he was, by his own admission, more emotionally invested in sports rather than academics. But McFarland caught his attention. The class, Denny wrote, “was the best class with the best teacher I ever had.” And the readings got him wondering about other books and authors, so, for the first time in his young life, he went to the public library and checked out a book – Tortilla Flat. The library “was a strange, new world,” and he was hooked.” I’ve have never been without a book since then. Roaming through bookstores is like being on a treasure hunt.”

I set up a phone call so that Denny could tell all this to his former teacher. They had a long and, from what I heard later, engaging conversation. As I write this, Mr. McFarland is compiling a reading list for Denny, based on the books they discussed.

I spoke with Mr. McFarland afterward, reflecting on the way a teacher’s influence plays out. For some in his class, his influence was evident in the moment – for example with the fellow who edited the student newspaper he supervised, or with someone like me, an aimless student who he pulled into his orbit. Teachers can point to such cases. But what about other varieties of influence? “When you teach so many classes,” McFarland mused, “there’s an awful lot of anonymity in the interaction. There’s people you don’t know you’re reaching – and sometimes they’re not aware at the time that something is being set in motion.”

He certainly set something in motion with me and with Denny Grace as well – and further set in motion a wonderful ongoing conversation between two former classmates who, thanks to Jack McFarland, now have a lot in common.

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  1. THIS is why teachers teach. And no standardised test can measure the impact of teachers on their students' lives, years later. I am STILL learning from master teachers I had years (& more years...) ago. Thank you, Mike Rose

  2. At the end of a long semester, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and despairing as you review the grades of 100 students (in my case) and wonder what (if anything--when you're feeling exhausted!), each is taking away from this brief experience. Like Jack McFarland says, "When you teach so many classes...there's an awful lot of anonymity in the interaction." But it's important to remember that "There's people you don't know you're reaching...." Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Thanks for the story Mike. I appreciate being reminded of the generosity of human interactions: the teacher, the student, the friend, the reunion, the new connection. When I think of a lifetime of such intersections, I get a glimpse of the beneficence of the world, how support is here for us.

  4. This reminds me of the impact a teacher had on me more than ten years ago. I was attending a writer’s conference for educators in Providence, RI. I remember sharing that I liked to begin writing by using images and developing ideas from there. One of the facilitators was skeptical. The other facilitator, however, jumped in and said he thought it was a good idea, that writers had different beginning points. I have never forgotten that support. I hung on this facilitators every word during that fall week and have now published two novels, several articles and written a dissertation. I often remember how much that other facilitator, Mike Rose, meant to me. I’m sure he doesn’t remember me. I wish now I’d followed up on my urge to thank him the final day of the conference as he was waiting just outside the revolving doors. An opportunity missed then but not now. As I tell my student teachers, we will never know how much of an impact we made on our students. But our impact as teachers is profound. As is the case with my anecdote about Mike, we don’t often remember a great lesson designed by teachers; we lose the specific words. We don’t’, though, forget the connection they made to us as learners and as people, the belief they had in us. And that makes all the difference. Thanks, Mike. You’ll always be a part of my continuing journey as a writer.

  5. I wonder if Denny saw himself as Danny…. Mr. McFarland a true example of unleavened bread (Tortilla Flat) made up of the purest flour mixed with precious oil. No leaven, no pride and just enough salt to flavor but not overwhelm. He shared his table teaching with grace and humility unknowingly reaching the athlete and the laureate for an eternity. What an awesome responsibility. What an honor to eat from his desk and be nourished and blessed for a lifetime….His seeds have sown an awesome crop which continues to bless us all.