I save the notes. Each school year teachers receive gift cards, socks, ties, embroidered sweaters, college paraphernalia, sports paraphernalia, coffee mugs, drug store aftershave or perfume, handmade crafts, homemade treats, pen sets, and other trinkets of gratitude. Mixed in with these mementos are the occasional notes scrawled in crayon, ink, or pencil. They contain the simple thank you, the descriptions of memorable moments, and the expressions of affection. These I save. I have a whole drawer full of them, tossed with pictures and certificates from my years as a teacher. I pull them out from time to time to remind me why I return each fall. They are evidence of the relationships that are carved out of 180 days of schooling.
My daughter pulled out a blank notebook as she rummaged through my memory drawer recently. She held it up and laughed, “Why is this here?” I told her to look behind the cardstock cover where Carlos Paz had printed his name in big block letters some twenty years earlier. Under his name he wrote, “Thank you Sr. Fournier.” It was his gift to me.
Carlos gave me that gift furtively. It was just before Christmas vacation and my desk was already piled high with teacher gifts. He snuck up to my desk and handed it to me while the other kids were bustling at the door waiting for the recess bell. From a boy who lived most of the school year out of a car or at a distant relative’s house, his gift was precious to me. It wasn’t just the token of gratitude that touched me, but the fact that it came from the most heroic student I have taught; from a boy who came to me as an illiterate eight year old, who spent two years in third grade, and who helped so many classmates while he struggled to reach a reading ability that would move him, finally, to the next grade level.
I can’t give credit for Carlos’ success to my teaching skills, the basel program we used, the phonic instruction, the standardized tests, nor the flash cards. In spite of all the training I have had since, I know it was the interactions we had as a small community of readers that launched Carlos on his literate way. Our book talks, our guided readings, our dramatic play, our quite reading time, our laughs, our arguments, our recesses all created the stage for Carlos to acquire the inheritance of literacy.
A valued mentor once told me, “You can teach to a test, or to a curriculum, or to a law, or to a policy, or to a program, but you won’t get anywhere as a teacher unless you teach to their eyes.” A teacher can be well armed with the things of teaching, but he cannot be effective without the intangible relationships with the students.
Relationships can’t be measured. They can’t be manufactured. They can’t be mandated or bought.