Their names stick in my mind with the glue of memory -- Moore, Smith, Emerson, Coffman, and Sandoz. They left more than their names in my mind; they were my teachers.
Another school year closes, and it seems appropriate to remember our teachers. They pour their lives into their students, and then those receivers of the gift of learning rush out into life. Teachers leave deep impressions whether or not they ever know the specifics. My teachers did -- for good and ill.
Ms. Moore, of grade one, accused me of lying. I hadn’t, and no evidence indicated I had. She, for some reason, simply thought I lied. It struck me as odd and wrong as a 6-year-old. I had done something stupid -- writing on my face with a pencil -- and another boy had done the same. I don’t remember if I copied him or he copied me, but I told Ms. Moore the truth, and she didn’t believe me, as if it were important who went first and who followed. My parents had always believed me because I told the truth. Ms. Moore showed me very early that the world is not always fair.
Ms. Smith, of grade four, loved me. I still recall her hugging me to the side of her hip as she bragged on me to my mother. I had initially feared going to her class. Students called her “The Tiger.” She became my angel. I became a real student with Ms. Smith. More importantly, I felt genuinely cared for. Because of Ms. Smith, the school moved me to the “accelerated class” in the fifth grade. She saw something no one else, including me, could see.
Ms. Emerson, of grade five, destroyed me. She quite simply broke my spirit. Old and cranky, she did not seem to care much for young and happy. Mom finally had an in-your-face talk with the woman, and things improved. Ms. Emerson made me want to hide from life, not live it.
Ms. Coffman, of grade 11, tapped me on the shoulder one day near the end of the school year. Ms. Coffman exuded school teacher cool. She sponsored the cheerleaders, and anyone in that group exuded cool. More importantly, she taught me English. With the shoulder tap she asked, “Have you thought of writing for the school newspaper next year?” I laughed, literally. Quiet Ferrell, laughed at the teacher. “No.” She had shocked me as thoroughly as if I had touched a hot electrical wire. I hated English, more than math or science or anything.
I didn’t pursue the school newspaper gig, but two years later after being bored stiff by my first college business class, I remembered Ms. Coffman’s suggestion. That shoulder tap and suggestion changed my life. I spent much of my adult life as a journalist and all of it as a writer. When people ask me what I do, the first answer now typically is “minister,” but deep down, I’m really a writer. No matter what form of job I’ve had -- journalist, pastor, public relations executive, ethicist -- I’ve primarily been a writer. Ms. Coffman made all of that possible with a tap on my shoulder and a suggestion.
The sad thing is, Nancy Coffman of Dallas Spruce High School, does not even know how she shaped my life. I have been unable to locate her and thank her for unlocking in me something I did not know was there.
I did have success in tracking down my college political science teacher -- Dr. Ellis Sandoz -- and telling him the deep impact he had on my life. He introduced me to the great heritage of political philosophy, and then one Sunday I saw him at First Baptist Church of Commerce. Here walked this man steeped in the philosophers -- Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Hume, and others -- coming to worship Jesus. Dr. Sandoz showed me we need not leave our brains at school.
Ms. Smith, Ms. Coffman, and Dr. Sandoz gave me something deep and lasting for the good. While I didn’t like Ms. Moore and Ms. Emerson, they did show me something of the world -- that it is not always fair and it is not always nice. Kids from good homes need to learn those lessons.
If the world were just and fair, we would pay school teachers more than CEOs or doctors or lawyers or ministers. Teachers make all of those other careers possible. Since it has become obvious we are not going to pay them justly for the important work they do, we had better find some other ways to honor them.
Maybe we should never call them by their first names. They deserve the honor of Ms., Mr., or Dr.
Maybe we should designate reserved parking spaces for them at churches and shopping centers.
Maybe we should stay in touch with them after we graduate and let them know how they have shaped us.
Maybe we should pay them much more even if we can’t pay them what they’re worth.
Maybe we should find more and more ways to honor these critical people, especially those in public schools where it can be especially difficult, who are shaping the lives that will shape our future.
Teachers, you can pray with the writer of Deuteronomy:
May my teaching drop like the rain,
my speech condense like the dew;
like gentle rain on grass,
like showers on new growth (Deut. 32:2).
And let the life you live before your students express in deeds, if not words, that you desire to proclaim the truth of God as revealed in Christ -- that your students are loved and valued in a world that is sometimes loveless and demeaning.
Our teachers, please rest for the summer and then return to your great places of service in the fall. Our children need you; our nation needs you; we all need you.