Tonight Brian told me that I saved a student’s life. He couldn’t remember her name, but she was a client of a colleague of his and this girl said that I had been instrumental in getting her the help she needed when she was in crisis and that without those resources she is sure she wouldn’t be here today. She told Brian’s colleague, “That teacher saved my life.”
I have no idea who this girl is.
I’m hoping that Brian will find out so that I can match a face to a name, but for now, I’m left wondering if really, I made that profound an impact on a life. I mean, it feels great, ego-wise to be able to tell yourself that your role is somehow that important, and maybe it even balances out some of the stark sadness when it all goes tragically wrong for some of our kids, but on a day to day level it’s easy to forget that what we do has a tangible impact.
This makes me think of my grandfather, who taught at Canterbury so many years ago. He taught JFK and so many others who would later become important figures in history. He had an impact on lives that became household names. Grandpa, who taught some of the greats, ended his career, and perhaps his life, feeling like he hadn’t made a difference in anyone’s life. He ended his days wondering if it had all been in vain; if he had wasted years that he could have spent composing music or creating something “lasting” trying to reach students who, in the end seemed not to be reached at all.
To say that my grandfather reached people is a gross understatement. Books have been dedicated to him; scholarships exist in his name; I’m fairly sure there’s a building somewhere that holds his name. He mattered. But, when your world is one that resides in the worlds of young people, that impact is rarely, if ever, felt in the moment. Instead we feel the moments we fail.
I will, until the day I die, carry the impact of Jack’s death on my heart. He was the boy I lost. I didn’t lose him alone and it’s not my burden to carry. But, I don’t think I’ll ever hear someone praise what I do without a small picture of him in my mind, sitting there that last day he spent on our earth, with me asking him all the wrong questions and demanding all the wrong answers.
I know that my grandfather held that memory too, whatever it was. There is not a teacher alive who doesn’t carry some profound sense of failure with them (and, I would argue that those who disagree with that statement are either new to the game or utterly uninvested). What we don’t always carry with us are the lives that we’ve touched.
I know that my grandfather touched lives, and it breaks my heart that he ended his days unsure of his impact. I fully, completely understand it, but it sill makes my sad. As for lives that I touched? I don’t know, maybe someone somewhere, a bit. It’s hard to say with over 100 a year, over 1,400 so far in my career. Maybe.
Tonight I heard, in passing, that I had an impact on a girl’s life. A girl I can’t picture, a name he can’t remember, and a scenario that doesn’t immediately jump out to me. If he hadn’t been in the midst of a conversation that happened to turn in that direction it never would have made it back to me, and even having traveled to me it has the quality of a game of “Telephone” where I really don’t have a solid grasp of the specifics.
But, none of that matters. And, to be honest, this idea that somehow I did something that may have helped someone is not important. What’s significant is that we never know the impact that we have on others, positive or negative. Those words that we say in passing that may alter a life for better or worse. Those missed opportunities for connection that linger in our souls forever as well as those moments of connection that we may not even know we’re having.
In the end, we all have an impact. As teachers we’re sometimes hit harder with it than others may be, but it’s still no less true for any of us. I would be hard pressed to take credit for saving anyone, any more than I will accept the clutching sadness that comes from feeling that I was incapable of saving someone else. But, I will try to remember that as a teacher my actions and my words carry weight far beyond what I am aware of, and, like my grandfather, I will likely never know the full impact of my connections. So, I need to always proceed with the hopes that I at the least do no harm, and that at my best, maybe, in some small way I can touch a life and make it just a little bit better.