...Like Captured Fireflies By John Steinbeck
My eleven-year-old son came to me recently and in a tone of patient suffering, asked, “How much longer do I have to go to school?” “About fifteen years,” I said. “Oh! Lord,” he said despondently. “Do I have to?”
“I ’m afraid so. It’s terrible and I ’m not going to try to tell you it isn’t. But I can tell you this-if you are very lucky, you may find a teacher and that is a wonderful thing.”
“Did you find one?”
It is customary for adults to for- get how hard and dull and long school is. The learning by memory all the basic things one must know is the most incredible and unending effort. Learning to read is probably the most difficult and revolutionary thing that happens to the human brain and if you don’ t believe that, watch an illiterate adult try to do it. School is not easy, and it is not for the most part very fun, but then if you are very lucky, you may find a teacher. Three real teachers in a lifetime is the very best of luck. My first was a science and math teacher in high school, my second a professor of creative writing at Stanford and my third was my friend and partner Ed Ricketts.
I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. It might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.
My three had these things in common-They all loved what they were doing. They did not tell-they catalyzed a burning desire to know. Under their influence, the horizons sprung wide and fear went away, and the unknown became knowable. But most important of all, the truth, that dangerous stuff, became beautiful and very precious.
I shall speak only of my first teacher because in addition to the other things, she brought discovery.
She aroused us to shouting, book waving discussions. She had the noisiest class in school, and she didn’t even seem to know it. We could never stick to the subject, geometry or the chanted recitation of the memorized phyla. Our speculation ranged the world. She breathed curiosity into us so that we brought in facts or truths shielded in our hands like captured fireflies.
She was fired and perhaps rightly so, for failing to teach the fundamentals. Such things must be learned. But she left a passion in us for the pure knowable world and me she inflamed with a curiosity which has never left me. I could not do simple arithmetic but through her I sensed that abstract mathematics was very like music. When she was removed, a sadness came over us, but the light did not go out. She left her signature on us, the literature of the teacher who writes on minds. I have had many teachers who told me soon-forgotten facts but only three who created in me a new thing, a new attitude and a new hunger. I suppose that to a large extent I am the unsigned manuscript of that high school teacher. What deathless power lies in the hands of such a person.
I can tell my son who looks forward with horror to fifteen years of drudgery that some- where in the dusty dark a magic may happen that will light up the years...if he is very lucky∎