Note: I actually wrote this last spring shortly after the event I described happened, I just kept putting off posting it.
I don’t remember much about my education program in college. There was the occasional professor whose knowledge and teaching was valuable but at the time Howard was not one of them. In fact I don’t even remember Howard’s last name. He did give us one assignment that stuck with me. We were told to write an essay that simply answered the question, “What will I teach?”
Well duh, I would teach them science. I waxed lyrical about how I would teach my students to become lifelong learners, I would stimulate their interest in science and they would come to love, if not live for science. I even suggested that through my teachings some of them might become scientists.
After a couple thousand words of this I turned my paper in, confident that I had Howard in the palm of my hand. I didn’t. I got back the paper and he basically said, “Yes that was all very nice but what are you going to teach?”
Now that is a question. It is a question I have given serious thought to for the last fourteen years. Just what is important for students to learn? And I still don’t know.
Of course I know what I am going teach day to day, even year to year but I am constantly questioning just what is really important. So during a faculty meeting when my principal asked essentially the same question it took me back to Howard. What exactly do I want my students to take away from their time with me. The same type of qualities I mouthed a decade and a half ago, tempered by time and realism, sprung to mind.
But then a terrible and profound thing happened in the time between her question and today. One of my freshmen science students shot himself. He was a student that seemed to love science. He was the ideal science student. He answered questions with a depth of understanding and curiosity that belied his age. I didn’t teach him all his science by any means but he had, what I wished all my students had, that burning interest in a subject I find fascinating. And he killed himself.
In light of this tragedy the wonders of quantum physics or DNA replication lose their importance. Instead the verities of life: love, family, understanding, , compassion and hope rise to the top. So given the opportunity to impart one thing to students it wouldn’t be about what I wish they would learn about science but it would be for them to understand that life gets better than it is in high school.
I would say this: high school is a moment in your life that few students entirely enjoy but life does get better. You are going through changes physical, mental, sexual, emotional and intellectual and many of them are not pleasant. But this will pass. Your skin will clear up, your shyness decrease, your search for someone who loves you and understands you will more than likely be fulfilled. The demands about what you are going to do with your life will become less strident and your confusion about what to do with your life will decrease. You might be pleasantly surprised with what you end up doing, and it may be far from whatever you had imagined in high school.
The false sense of urgency that we foster in high school will fade and you will appreciate that the trajectory of your life is not inflexible. Life will offer you a multitude of choices and you will have many chances to choose from that menu. Even if you find yourself in trouble or facing enormous obstacles, ours is a country of second and third and fourth chances. And over time you can adjust your life’s path and make it better or at least more interesting.
In all ways this young man’s death is a tragedy. It is an unimaginable loss to his family and friends. It is a loss to the school and a loss to the greater community. And it is an especially tragic loss because for whatever reason he must have simply found himself in a place he couldn’t see a way out of. And if someone could have reached him with the message that his life would get better, it is just possible that his death might have been prevented.
So finally, to answer Howard’s question just what would I like my students to learn, I think that is it.