This year I taught my last class at my first institution and soon I will teach my first at a very different school. Although I am happy to start anew, there will be many people to miss and among them stand many of the students who have impacted my life. This time of year teachers are mostly worn down—it is often hard to see the good we do in the midst of it. Indeed, as I tell my students, we are conditioned to see our failures (of which there are many without a doubt) and to minimize our successes.
I tried to downplay my departure—my department held a small gathering to mark it and a few students were invited. One of the students brought a card from a student who graduated several years ago:
The bit about “be the best” is a truth that makes me shudder a bit because it can be terrible advice to set someone up for disappointment. I remember the conversation distinctly—the student had finished a senior thesis and was ready to go to law school but the process had been frustrating for us both. After letting the student know she had done just fine, I told her law school was going to be harder and she had a choice of doing well (which she would) or doing great. Then I quoted the Iliad.
“Hippolochus fathered me—I claim him as my father.
He sent me to Troy and gave me much advice,
To always be the best and to be better than the rest.”
῾Ιππόλοχος δέ μ’ ἔτικτε, καὶ ἐκ τοῦ φημι γενέσθαι·
πέμπε δέ μ’ ἐς Τροίην, καί μοι μάλα πόλλ’ ἐπέτελλεν
αἰὲν ἀριστεύειν καὶ ὑπείροχον ἔμμεναι ἄλλων…
“Old Peleus advised his son Achilles
To always be the best and be better than the rest.
And to you in turn your father Menoitios, Aktor’s son, advised:
‘My child, Achilles is superior to you by birth,
But you are older. And he is much stronger than you.
But you must do well to speak and give him a close word,
And to advise him. He will obey you to a good end.”
Πηλεὺς μὲν ᾧ παιδὶ γέρων ἐπέτελλ’ ᾿Αχιλῆϊ
αἰὲν ἀριστεύειν καὶ ὑπείροχον ἔμμεναι ἄλλων·
σοὶ δ’ αὖθ’ ὧδ’ ἐπέτελλε Μενοίτιος ῎Ακτορος υἱός·
τέκνον ἐμὸν γενεῇ μὲν ὑπέρτερός ἐστιν ᾿Αχιλλεύς,
πρεσβύτερος δὲ σύ ἐσσι· βίῃ δ’ ὅ γε πολλὸν ἀμείνων.
ἀλλ’ εὖ οἱ φάσθαι πυκινὸν ἔπος ἠδ’ ὑποθέσθαι
καί οἱ σημαίνειν· ὃ δὲ πείσεται εἰς ἀγαθόν περ.
In the first passage, Glaukos is telling Diomedes who he is and they ‘bond’ over their shared background (really, I think Glaukos comes out on top—though he exchanges gold armor for bronze, he lives to fight another day). In the second, Nestor is attempting to persuade Patroklos that he too is responsible for Achilles’ behavior because of their fathers’ injunctions.
Most of us who teach are more like Nestor than Patroklos, but we have Patroklos’ ability to advice, apply a convincing word here and there and hope (sometimes against all logic) that what we say will have some “good” outcome. While we watch hundreds (if not thousands) of students pass through our classrooms over the years, we remember mostly those we don’t seem to move, the good we seem not to have accomplished.
But every once in a while, we are lucky enough to hear that what we do makes a real difference. And it is often not in the exam we set, the lecture we give, or the grades we dole out. We make impacts in those human interactions between the scripted moments. Don’t get me wrong—everything else is important too: the scripted moments allow us to “be the best” in one way, to offer that “close-kept word”. But our unassessed, unquantified, and unmandated contributions help to take our work from the classroom to the world our students (and we) inhabit.
In nearly a decade at my first job I was honored to have many students like the one who sent me this thank-you note—bright young people who will go on to make their lives better and improve the lives of those around them. I am thankful to have had this opportunity and humbled that I too have been able to make a difference.