My English teacher in my junior year of high school, Dr. Beller, looked like he had walked straight out of a Jack Kerouac novel. He was short, overweight and wore light brown glasses with thin frames. His skin had the leathery look of too much sun and cigarettes, but his eyes were soft and kind and they had a mischievous quality to them when he smiled. His voice was also gentle, with a slight gravelly tone to it and the hair he had left was always a little bit out of place.
Dr. Beller had been a college professor for most of his career as an educator before he came to my school. My junior year was his first year as a high school teacher and he had a bit of a rocky start. For a man who had spent most of his professional life lecturing to college students, most of whom were in his classes by choice, the transition to keeping high school students interested, plus the worlds of lesson planning and smaller, more frequent homework assignments, was difficult. I tended to zone out from time to time in English, as it was easily my strongest subject, and Dr. Beller’s early lectures made it easy for me to do so.
About halfway through the year, Dr. Beller asked to meet with me one-on-one to talk about the way I felt the class was going. I gave him some thoughts about getting the class more involved in the discussion to keep us more engaged, rather than lecturing at us. Then he asked me what I thought of the books we had worked on. I responded by saying that I had liked Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter but was much less impressed by Thoreau’s Walden. I don’t remember the third book we read that year but I think I said I had liked that one the most. Dr. Beller paused for a few seconds before answering, his lips pursed together above his brown-but-graying goatee. Then he spoke, softly, but firmly.
“Aaron, who the fuck do you think you are?”
I blinked. I was surprised but, somehow, not insulted. Dr. Beller clearly wanted to get my attention and he had succeeded. He went on to explain that the works we were reading had been determined to be classics by generations of literary critics and thinkers, with vastly more experience and knowledge than I had, so who was I, some punk teenager, to make a judgment about whether or not I “liked” a book?
Needless to say, from that moment on, Dr. Beller was one of my favorites. The best teachers are the ones who challenge and inspire us to move beyond our comfort zones1 and cursing at me was definitely a challenge. I found myself making more of an effort to be open to Dr. Beller’s lessons; I decided that if Dr. Beller had the balls to curse openly at one of his students – not just around, but directly at – then I had probably underestimated him.
I’ve spent my life following people like Dr. Beller. There is a line in the rabbinic text, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), which says, “Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend and judge every person on the positive side.”2 I was assigned to learn from my teachers in school, but it was my choice to make sure that I learned as much from them as I could. I continued that practice with my philosophy professors in college and I’ve made it a point to engage with people who seemed like they had something to offer.
It actually wasn’t until a couple of months ago, during an online exchange with a fellow dad blogger,3 that I finally realized that the thing I am always searching for is wisdom. I majored in philosophy because I believe that there is knowledge to be gained about the right way to live and to treat others. I have interacted so well with certain teachers not only because they challenged me, but also because I knew they had experience that could help me learn. I connect so often with people older than me because they have been places and seen and done things that I have not.
The hardest part is making sure that I take notice when these people come into my life. I never know where new lessons are going to come from or how they will affect me but I try to keep my mind open so I don’t miss anything. After all, new sources of wisdom are not always going to curse at me to get my attention.
1. All three of my high school English teachers fit that description. I say three because my teacher from my freshman year, Mrs. Fisher, taught my senior class, as well.↩