Thursday, May 19, 2016

Tribute to a Teacher

In high school I was fortunate enough to be taught by many excellent educators over the years. But there were a handful that—even at the time, as a smart-aleck, know-it-all teenager—I recognized as being something rare and special. These were people that I remember thinking to myself, “They’re so smart and so talented that they could probably be doing anything they want with their lives….yet they’re choosing to spend their time with US.” Sure, that might suggest they had a wee bit of…masochism…inherent in their personalities, but undoubtedly they brought passion and dedication to the classroom, so much so that they even got through to the toughest of audiences: angst-ridden adolescents.

One of these individuals was Mr. Miller, who imparted to me his seemingly vast knowledge of Psychology and AP U.S. History. Well, let me tell you, that was 30 years ago, and I still have a couple of papers tucked away from good old Psych. You see, Mr. Miller wouldn’t just grade your test or your reflection paragraph and give it back with a big red number at the top for you to immediately shove into your binder (or the garbage can) and forget. Rather, you might find the page covered with personal commentsreactions to what you’d written, or questions about your thoughts, or even continuations of conversations you’d begun during class time and not had a chance to finish before the bell rang. I found myself looking forward to getting my assignments back and perusing the notes…and I probably absorbed nearly as much from those constructive extra exchanges as I did from the textbook (which also couldn’t have been remotely as entertaining)!

And then…there was AP History. For some unknown--yet definitely cruel and unusual--reason, that particular subject was scheduled for the unholy hour of 8 a.m. On the first day of the school year, our merry little band (of drowsy, grumpy young adults) tromped out to Mr. Miller’s portable, to be met by his unfailingly cheerful countenance. I’ll never forget it: he sat on his desk (not “at”, actually “on top of”) and addressed us informally. He welcomed us to class and introduced himself by telling us that it was fine with him if we called him Tony.

As we sat there, most likely gaping in shock at a respected elder (ish) making such a preposterous announcement, he continued, unperturbed, “It’s far too early for this, so here’s what we’re going to do. Everyone contribute a dollar, and we’ll buy a hot pot. The first person to arrive each day will go inside the main building and fill it up with water. Bring a mug and whatever you like to drink—coffee, tea, hot chocolate—and that’s how we’ll start our mornings.” And then, as we continued to struggle to process the fact that a teacher—an authority figure—would treat us this way (you know…like mature, reasonable human beings, instead of the idiot high schoolers we actually were), he couldn’t seem to help adding, with a twinkle in his eye that we would come to recognize and expect, “Anyway, the rules say that I’m not allowed to eat or drink in here unless you are, so that’s how we’ll take care of it.”

And just like that, he set the tone for one of the most rigorous, yet enjoyable academic experiences of my life. We absolutely needed our caffeine, because he had a whole boatload of stuff to teach us--the intensity of which was belied by his easygoing manner and ready smile.

That, to me, is Tony—Mr. Miller—in a nutshell: under his pleasant exterior, he was TOUGH…but he never failed to make it FUN…and somehow, without you even catching on, he made you a better student along the way. Not to mention helping sow and nurture the seeds of curiosity for someone who to this day considers herself an avid “lifelong learner”. And for that, I will be eternally grateful

Mr. Miller’s headed off to a well-earned retirement when this school year concludes. From a former student—and fan—I want to thank him from the bottom of my heart.  To quote Tolkien, “Not all those who wander are lost”, and I hope wherever his life’s journey takes him next comes with joy, wonder…and always, a nice, hot beverage!

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