At just about the beginning of each new school year, I wish that I could travel back in time and reteach my first students. I feel I did them a real disservice, and I would like right the wrongs of that year, applying all what I now know. Although I am not about to hunt down all 122 of them and send them hand written apologies, and although most have gone on to college and are flourishing in their careers and families, I still can’t help fighting back the image of them sitting somewhere in front of a keyboard struggling to write a letter or an essay, fuming with frustration, and then cursing the name of their ninth grade English teacher as they conclude that it’s all his fault. I realize that this wish isn’t that uncommon among teachers, but it doesn’t make it any less sincere.
What am I now doing differently? That’s a book in and of itself. But if pressed, I’d have to say modeling. So much of what I originally did was lecture, chalk-talk, sage on the stage. Just tell them. And that does work with some, but not too many. What I neglected to recognize is how we actually learn best, through showing, not telling. It’s like when someone says, Tell me a story. That’s not what he’s really asking. What he really wants is to be shown a story with words. We need the visual. We need the example. The proven pudding. Whether it’s an essay or critical analysis or a poem, I give them the model and then we journey together toward the answer. It’s no great secret that’s the most effective way to learn. It’s how I learned. It’s how I’ve always learned best, through modeling, through example. And not just in the classroom, anywhere in life. Yet where I seemed to learn what has been most valuable to me is from the examples, the models, set by my father.
Recently on Facebook, a newly “confirmed” friend sent me a message that she recently remembered that my dad had taught her older sister to play guitar. He, too, was a teacher. A natural one. He had more different jobs than anyone I have ever known, but I mostly remember as a teacher. Not because he taught guitar and piano for so long, but because I can’t ever recall him not teaching. It was a roll he was just suited for. However, I don’t know how he would have fared in a classroom of two dozen adolescents. He could have handled the students, but he would have been confined by the four walls. His classroom was the world at large, and my sister and I were his chief pupils.
Unlike my teaching, my dad didn’t make up lesson plans, create power points, and give quizzes. His teaching was conducted by the deeds he did, the words he spoke, and the actions he took. And I learned, constantly.
My father never graduated high school because of his deafness and the need to help support his family. From time to time, that fact cropped up to alter his endeavors. Yet, Dad was an accomplished salesman, and he carried quite a respectable reputation. There was a certain company trying to recruit him for a lucrative position, which would mean a great deal more of much needed money. However, the policy of the company was that all sales personnel must have a high school diploma. Yet, he checked the box indicating that he hadn’t graduated on the obligatory application. When he went on the interview, the vice president, who was pursuing him, reminded my dad of this. The VP’s solution was to lie and check the box on the application next to “achieved high school diploma.” For my father, that was out of the question. The VP all but begged my father, assuring him that it was just a formality, no one would ever know. My father never worked for that company.
I asked, “Why not just sign it? Who cares?”
My dad only said, “I try to live my life so nothing comes back to haunt me, especially some little lie on an application.” My dad would never then turn to me and say, “Now you do likewise with your life’s decisions.” That was telling. Instead, he showed; that was teaching.
It was because of those moments that my father had such a high reputation in a business where so many wished they hadn’t forfeited their integrity, while my father fortified his. There were dozens of scenarios like these that I had heard, not just from him, but from so many others in his business who recounted them like folklore. No doubt about it; his example set a high standard to follow. And his was the one to follow.
In Paul’s Epistle to Titus 2:7, Paul outlines a qualification for a good leader. He stipulates, “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity…” Here Paul distinguishes a good leader from bad by clarifying with the word “model.” Not someone who tells. Someone who demands of others what he may not practice himself. Not just wisdom for the ear. He says model. Show, not tell. In order for others to follow, they must first see the way, not just hear way, or be told the way. That alone weeds out most as potential good leaders, good teachers. It’s why my father was a natural teacher—he modeled good, and he showed integrity and dignity, even to his last breath.
The final days of my dad’s life was spent at home, in hospice. The family sat with him around the clock and took care of him, as if he were a fragile newborn. More than once while I sat with him, he spoke out, “Jesus, forgive me. I know I have offended you.” I first thought, If this man has offended Jesus, then I’m in real trouble. Moreover, to me, this seemed like maybe it was a private thought, something between him and God. A confession.
Until his final breaths, my father kept his awareness. He knew who was sitting with him. He knew when I was there. He would open his eyes, look around, and then drift back into a light sleep. He spoke little, but what he spoke was very specific. He said he’d miss me. He whispered once that he thought I was a good son and a good father. And without hesitation I assured him that if any of that were true, it was only because of the examples he set before me.
And so as I sat there with him in those hours, it occurred to me that he was doing more than just bringing closure, saying goodbye, confessing even. He was still teaching. As he showed me how to live, he was showing me, in his final lesson, how to die. How to face the end. Setting one final example. Still, even then, he couldn’t not teach, he couldn’t not model, showing dignity, showing faith.