Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Changing the river's course

In talking to friends and family members, I've found that a common experience we have is in there being a small number of people who have radically altered our lives in a positive direction.  Sometimes a single gesture, smile, or well-placed word can shift our pathway profoundly, and the sad truth of it is that we seldom ever get around to telling those people how much they have changed us.

This comes up because a few days ago I found out that my high school French teacher, Shirley Taylor, died last summer.  I remember Mrs. Taylor well -- I had her class for four years running -- and she stands out in my memory as everything a teacher should be.  Firm but not harsh; high standards, and with a determination that every student can meet them; and a subtle and wry sense of humor.  But the one thing she did that I remember best is something she probably didn't even recall herself afterwards.

I was a fairly good French student but lackadaisical in most other classes, content to get by on a minimum of work, rarely pushing myself to do any better than I had to in order to stay out of trouble when I brought my report card home.  But Mrs. Taylor saw in me an ability to learn languages, and pushed me more than once to spend a year in France after I graduated.  I'd excel, she said, and I'd come back completely fluent.  It surprised me that she singled me out; like I said, I was no great shakes as a student.  The funny part of it all in retrospect is that I didn't take her advice about spending a year in France.  I didn't travel until much later -- to Mrs. Taylor's intense disappointment -- but when I first went to a non-English speaking country, years afterwards, I still remembered Mrs. Taylor's confidence in me.

"You're a natural," I recalled her saying.  "Someone like you needs to see the world."

I haven't stopped traveling since.

My French teacher, Mrs. Shirley Taylor (1936-2015)

The strangest thing about those moments is that we ourselves sometimes don't recognize them as the earthquakes they are while they're happening.  My entire life jumped to a different set of tracks when my high school counselor, Mr. Grace, grabbed my arm as I was walking down the hall in my senior year, and told me I needed to take a scholarship test that was being offered at the University of Louisiana.  I wasn't planning on going to college -- what I really wanted to do was to join the Park Service and move to Arizona -- but he said, and I quote, "You're taking that test if I have to go to your house on Saturday and drag your lazy ass out of bed."

So I did.  And I was one of the scholarship winners.  Automatic admission and full tuition to the University of Louisiana.  He turned my life a different way by that one action -- who knows where, or who, I would be now if it hadn't been for that one thing?

I remember with great fondness three other teachers who shaped my world -- Ms. Jane Miller, my high school biology teacher, whose passion for her subject and deep enthusiasm were absolutely contagious, and whose style I still model in my own classroom after nearly thirty years of being a teacher myself.  Dr. Harvey Pousson, my college calculus teacher, whose gentle, soft-spoken wit and brilliant way of explaining abstruse concepts made calculus one of my favorite subjects (and how many people do you hear that from?).  Ms. Beverly Authement, my high school creative writing teacher -- who I can say, without hesitation, turned me into the writer of fiction I am today, and without whose cheerful encouragement I would never have had the confidence to tell stories to the world.  (And who is, by the way, still a teacher today!)

I've been able to thank a few of these and other folks who have sculpted my life's path, and who have forever enriched my world.  Even though they may think they're forgotten -- that what they did was insignificant -- they remain the people whose influence has lasted.  And it makes me more determined not only to give gratitude to the ones whose lives so inspired my own, but to have more awareness myself about what I say and do.  Will anyone look back, forty years from now, and remember me as one of the pivotal connections in their lives?  And, most importantly, will that memory be a positive one?

I may never know the answer to that -- and that's okay.  Maybe the force that diverts the river doesn't recognize the effect it has, then or perhaps ever.  But it does highlight something I've known for a while: that we all need to be a great deal more cognizant of how we interact with the people around us, because we may be having a much larger effect than we will ever realize.


  1. It's so often teachers, isn't it? I thought immediately of my high school history teacher, who had us reading Plato and Aristotle and writing essays about them - at 14 - because he believed we could handle it, so we did. That ignited a lifelong love of philosophy for me, as well as confidence in my own intellectual abilities. I think it's those people who expand our sense of what is *possible* who have the most influence.

  2. Thank you, Gordon. I proudly taught BEHIND THE FRAME to my present students; they really enjoyed your book and asked if we could read another one of yours! Keep writing and I'll keep teaching. Ms. Bev

  3. Hmm that's funny, because most of my teachers told me I couldn't do anything. That I wouldn't hack it and wasn't smart enough.

    It sounds like your life is one of those rare movie style routes. For the most part students shuffle in and out of class, glad to be rid of the teacher and vice versa.

    People these days barely give you the time of day for very long. Seems like people find their cliques of friends and want nothing to do with everyone else.

    1. Because I had four outstanding teachers, through 13 years of public school and eight years of college, my life is a "movie-style route?" Please. I also had lousy teachers and mediocre ones. I was bullied pretty badly, and in my memory, none of the powers-that-be did much about it.

      But I'm not bitter and angry enough that I don't feel gratitude for the people who DID make a difference, which is apparently how you and I differ.