O Teacher! My Teacher!

If you read nothing else today, this week, this month, this year, then you must read To the Teacher Who Changed My Life: Thank You

Most of all he testified to the messiness of life. In high school a lot of people are trying to fix you and improve you and elevate you. Neal Tonken listened and affirmed that things were confusing. Because he loved passionately, spoke loudly (and occasionally out of turn), and found life overwhelming in both beauty and frustration, he understood what you were saying. What I was saying.

He did all of this without letting us off the hook. I got a C-plus each semester in his class. I might have been newly alive but I was messy, and it was no good to be alive if you couldn’t make something of that passion in a way that makes sense to other people. “His work suffers from lack of personal discipline and attention to detail,” is how he put it.

He had high standards and expected us to meet them. But we wanted to. He did not have much time for BS. In the tributes after his death, classmates remembered his comments when they tried to sneak something by him. Dan Manatt, now a documentarian, tried to loaf by with a paper on The Great Gatsby that used a lot of fancy words to cover up that he was winging it. “There’s much less here than meets the eye,” wrote Mr. Tonken. Sam Thomas, now a novelist, did the same thing on a paper. “This is pure fluff. If it weren’t well written it would be an F. D.”…

Another student, who had graduated almost 20 years after I had, drove straight from Ann Arbor when she heard the news. She brought her Norton Anthology of Poetry. She came into the room to read him letters that were just arriving from students who heard he was ill. A special inbox had been set up, and it was filling rapidly. She read letter after letter from students who weren’t just recalling events from his class but how he had changed their lives too. The room filled up with grateful souls.

That was Neal’s last lesson. That example. To let us see life in that rich tally—an accumulation of gratitude deserved and expressed. I got a chance to thank Neal, and it makes me think of other teachers to whom I am grateful—Bonnie Mazziotta, Sally Selby, Juan Jewell, George Lang, Ellis Turner, Susan Banker, JoAnne Lanouette, Harold Kolb and Anthony Winner. I carry with me what they have given by their instruction and their example. Perhaps you have teachers like that in your life. Write them. Be clear and direct. Tell them “thank you.”

I’ll take this another step and say that you shouldn’t just thank those who taught you in school. Think of the mentors you’ve had at work, church or civic organization. Think of the friends and peers who helped guide you through life with a perfectly timed piece of advice, a nudge in the right direction or a much needed “I call BS” moment. Think of your grandparents, aunts and uncles, and close family friends. Think of your spouse. Think of your parents. And after you think of them you most definitely should reach out and thank them.

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