I had been teaching for about three years when Bob came into my class. A retired engineer with a gentle personality, Bob had been to Mexico several times and wanted to learn Spanish.
As language teachers I think we are sometimes drawn to those students who show a natural affinity for the language. We praise them to their faces and quietly marvel at their skills in the staff room when we are talking with our colleagues.
Bob was most definitely not that student. Bob was highly intelligent. Before retirement, he had been a successful engineer for several decades. When it came to Spanish though, it was like his brain functioned in slow motion.
When it came to speaking, I wondered how a Canadian could seemingly gain a southern American twang when pronouncing Spanish. It was like fingernails down a chalkboard.
What Bob lacked in natural talent, he made up for in tenacity and enthusiasm. Like Kyle, he won my professional heart with “do or die” attitude. His homework was done every day. He made up his own flash cards. He practiced the dialogues. He got extra tutoring. Bob decided that this his thing and there was no stopping him.
He’d come into class and tell me about the move he watched in Spanish over the weekend or the audio book in Spanish he had found at the library. He found the stores in town that carried Latin American products and not only did he become a frequent customer, he got to know the staff. His passion for the language and Latin American culture was effervescent and contagious.
Bob passed his first course and his second, and then a third. He spent the summers in Mexico taking immersion programs. He progressed but very slowly. The twang and choppiness of his spoken language always sounded a bit like fingernails down a chalkboard.
After Bob had made it through his basic level classes, he had a choice of what classes to take. He came to me for advice. Part of me wanted to say, “Look, amigo, you are wasting your time and your money. Seriously, you just don’t have any talent for this stuff…” but something stopped me.
My mind went back to my high school years. I had a full slate of courses, was actively involved in student activities and had a part-time job. Some students worked so they could buy more fashionable clothes than their parents could afford. Some of the boys wanted to buy a car. Most of us socked away a few dollars to be able to go to the movies. But the thing I really saved my money for was singing lessons.
I loved to sing. I never had much confidence when it came to singing, so I never tried out for the school musical. Instead, I worked behind the scenes on the set so I could still soak up the experience. I really, really wanted to be on stage, but it would be a cold day in hell before you would ever get me up there, singing in front of people.
I knew that if I took private voice lessons and worked hard, I could do it. My plan was to take singing lessons in grade ten and eleven and try out for the school musical in grade twelve. Even back then I was a long-term planner.
I started with one lesson a week and then moved up to two lessons. I would go over to my singing teacher’s apartment, where she would sit down at her electric piano and proceed to engage me in my favorite learning experience of the week.
I was especially thrilled because she taught me songs in Italian and German. I adored learning to pronounce words in other languages. I learned how to form different sounds in my mouth, to breathe from my belly and project my voice. Those two hours were the highlight of every week.
I would go home and practice in between lessons and my confidence slowly increased.
Every year, Wanda held a recital for her students. The first year we agreed that I was not ready to participate. I still had stage fright and though you’d never know it today, the thought of being in front of an audience caused me so much stress I almost vomited.
By the second year though, I was bouncing off the walls with effervescence. I was ready. I was going to do the recital and that would help me to get ready for the auditions for the school musical. When it came to singing, a child-like delight not only filled my soul, it ran through my veins.
The day of the recital came. I had rehearsed and felt nervous, but ready. I got up in front of the audience I channeled Giordani’s “Caro Mio Ben” in such an inspired way, you would have thought I was lip synching to an archangel. It was brilliant. I was so happy I cried.
At the beginning of my next voice lesson, Wanda said we could do whatever song I wanted. Filled with confidence, I was already thinking about the school musical. I chose “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” since I thought I might be able to use it for my audition.
She ended the lesson a few minutes early in order to debrief the recital, “So, how do you feel about how it went?” she asked.
“The practice paid off,” I said. “I wasn’t perfect, but man, it was really the best I have ever done.”
She looked me square in the eye and, “Sarah, it has been two years… I know you really want to do this…” She then said words I have never forgotten, bullets that ripped through my heart in an instant, “I think your energies are best directed elsewhere. You’ll never be a singer.”
Stunned, I asked, “What do you mean? I thought I did OK…”
Wanda replied, “I don’t really know how to say this kindly. This is our last lesson. You will never learn to sing. It’s time for you to go. I have another student coming.”
Shell shocked, I left. In that instant, my confidence vaporized. My enthusiasm for singing would never be the same, knowing that the teacher whom I idolized had banished me. I never tried out f the school musical. Never went back to church choir. For many years, I wouldn’t even sing the national anthem at public events. I was ashamed to open my mouth. The effects of that one day lasted for decades.
The circle of life … and learning
I looked at Bob and said, “Amigo, what class inspires you the most?”
He looked at the calendar and said, “I think this course on Mexican poetry…”
“Then take it,” I said.
Bob went on to take exactly that course, followed by many other courses. He told me once that he spent four hours a day learning Spanish. He travelled throughout Latin America, taking great pleasure in planning out each trip down to the last detail.
He lived and breathed Spanish. Spanish was to Bob what singing had been for me. Even though I had been tempted to tell him that he really didn’t have any natural talent for the language, I didn’t. I knew that what mattered most to him was the joy he got out of learning what he loved.
There can be miracles when you believe
Bob and I have kept in touch over the years. Several years after he had been a student in my class, I was walking down the hallway of our department and I heard Bob in another professor’s office, talking about an upcoming trip to Mexico.
I stopped and listened. He spoke in simple, but grammatically flawless sentences. The words flowed into sentences and the twanginess had all but disappeared from his speech. You could tell that he was not a native speaker, but it was no longer painful to listen to him. “Bob,” I thought to myself, “Happy retirement, amigo. Way to go. You’re living the dream.”
As teachers we are influenced by the idea that those with “natural talent” deserve most of our attention and admiration. We focus a little more on those people who somehow inspire us by their facility to pick concepts up easily and master new skills effortlessly.
Every now and again, you will get a student whose passion for the subject matter fuels their discipline and dedication, as they put in endless hours of practice. We can forget that as teachers, the influence we can have over our students can impact them in ways we can never imagine.
I am quite sure that my signing teacher barely remembers me. If she does, she may just roll her eyes and think, “Remember the girl with that awful voice… poor thing…” I am sure she has no idea that I sobbed for weeks and that despite a secret desire to take more singing lessons again, I have never tried. That day, I was quite literally, shamed into silence.
If I could reach higher (as a teacher)
Our job as teachers is a complex one. At the beginning of our careers we think it is about the subject matter and getting the students to learn the content. As we progress through our careers, we begin to really understand the complexity of what we are doing. No matter what subject we are teaching, every single one of our students comes to us with hopes and fears, as well as different levels of interest and engagement.
I admit that I my own experiences influence what I say when I assert that an important aspect of our job, is to help students tap into that part of themselves that fuels their drive and to never, ever tell them they are not good enough. Not every student is going to be a phenomenal prodigy but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be an exemplar of enthusiasm combined with disciplined practice. Being a lifelong learner is not about being sensational at everything we do. It is, in part, about having the belief that what we are learning is worthwhile and that we ourselves are worthwhile.
In one sentence, we as teachers can either raise our students up, or beat them down. The impact and influence we have on our students can be greater than we ever imagine. What about you? What words have teachers said to you that have stayed with you for years to come? Were they encouraging or devastating? What have you said to your own students that you think may have influenced them years after they left your class?
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” As teachers, part of our job includes giving students the tools they need to build their own dreams.
And just for the record… Today when I am driving alone in my car with the windows up and the radio on, I don’t sing songs, I own them. In my little blue Mini Cooper, I am a rock star. “I can almost see it, that dream I’m dreaming...”
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.