I was recently talking with a friend who teaches English at Bangor High School about a young man he had seen in the checkout line at the supermarket.
“The kid looked familiar but I couldn’t place him,” my friend said. “That’s the problem with being a teacher. You see lots of kids, and then they grow up and, like caterpillars, disappear into adulthood. But the kid came over to me with a big smile and said, ‘Hi, Mr. B! Remember me?’
“And then I did remember — that kid in my 10th-grade class who lived in Shaw House, who was as attracted to trouble as a dog is to a bone, who never paid attention, whose brain lived on some far-off planet.
“It turned out that he had been paying attention after all, that he had read his assignments and that English class at Bangor High had meant a lot to him. He told me he is now working for a social service agency in Alaska, paying back some of what he had been given.”
We asked each other how this young man — who seemed to be headed inevitably toward a downward spiral — had managed to arrest his fall and set off in a totally new direction.
Our conclusion: education. Not just the school itself, the buildings and the curricula — but teachers who cared.
At its root, education is all about caring. Education is about teachers who see beyond standardized test results, the bizarre piercings, the rebellious words. A teacher who cares opens up a passage to the interior life of another human being — to an inner world often hidden from that person as well as from everyone else — and allows that student to see the outside world as something more than his or her mini-environment. And when that happens, anything is possible.
My friend and I agreed that there are many ways that kids can flourish. Some bloom with home schooling, others with religious education, and many, year after year, in our public schools. A caring mentor can make all the difference; not always a teacher, but maybe a great coach, a loving grandfather or a doting aunt. Some blossom in the quiet of a library in silent conversation with writers from the ages.
We will always be debating the best way to educate young people — and we should be. The arguments about how to measure educational “success” will be with us forever. The DNA and circumstances of each of us is unique, and there is no one path that works for all. But in a world moving to more and more online learning, a caring teacher can relate to a kid better than the most sophisticated tablet or app. A caring teacher is the foundation on which education rests.
Our nation’s commitment to public education and to the teachers who run it is a key pillar supporting our democratic society. It is our covenant with the next generation. Our grandparents supported the schools in which our parents learned and in turn our parents made their schools work for us. We need to uphold this tradition and maintain our commitment to provide public schools and the best teachers we can find for everyone — for our own kids and grandkids and those of the less fortunate families down the road.
Education, of course, is what lifts people out of poverty and reduces welfare costs and the enormous and undercounted costs of crime. Maine spends $161 million yearly incarcerating 2,000 adults, half of whom have less than a high school education and a graduation rate of only 30 percent for those who do make it into high school. According to a 2005 report from the Sloan School of Management at MIT, high-quality education starting at birth yields a return of $13 for every $1 invested.
Last month I saw the obituary of Bel Kaufman, who died on July 25 at the age of 103. She wrote a remarkable book called “Up the Down Staircase,” which I read years ago. It is about a caring teacher who made a difference in an almost comically dysfunctional New York City school. For teachers, like my friend Mr. B and Kaufman, caring can bring unexpected successes, many of which surface only years later.
The future belongs to those with talent, imagination and the willingness to work. Education and teachers who care are the essential catalysts.
Geoff Gratwick, a Democrat, represents Bangor and Hermon in the Maine Senate.