It’s one of our basic desires: to know that we through our actions have meant something to others.
Faulkner commented on it when he wrote about the writer’s desire for immortality through the written word, which he compared to the artist scribbling, “Kilroy was here.”
And Paul Tamburello, former teacher, mentor, friend and subject of On My Teacher’s Shoulders wrote about it the year before he retired after having taught for 34 years at Brookline’s Pierce School:
How much have I accomplished, what’s my place in the pantheon of my school’s history? More importantly what’s my place in the personal pantheons of the hundreds of fourth graders whom I’ve taught, advised, disciplined, and eaten lunch with for the past 33 years?
Standing on the precipice of leaving the calling to which he had given his entire adult life, anticipating on a professional level the final ending that awaits us all, Paul unflinchingly wrote his questions about how he would live on in the hearts, heads and memories of those children into which he had poured his energy and total commitment and irretrievable time.
Paul’s raw honesty moved one of our first readers.
Dave Russell, supervising teacher, mentor and friend, has toiled for more than a quarter century working with learning disabled middle school students at Boston’s McKinley School.
We first met nearly 22 years ago on the pier before taking a 7:00 a.m. ferry to Thompson Island, where Dave taught and I worked as an assistant in an experimental program that integrated school, outdoor education, residential and social work pieces.
Our goal at the island school was to get the kids into good enough shape to be able to join the “mainstream” McKinley School in the South End.
It was grueling work, as many, many of the students had deeply troubled paths and bleak futures.
One of the students had been prostituted by her mother.
Another did not know where she had been born.
A third would get excited to leave the island for a weekend visit with his mother, only to have her invariably cancel at the last minute.
My stint on the island ended after about four months. I went on the next year to run a homework center in Brookline’s Lincoln School and two local housing developments before eventually getting a job teaching Social Studies and English to middle school students in Newton.
Dave’s stayed at McKinley, striving ceaselessly trying to improve his craft and the expectations he brings to his students.
Many of them have ended up incarcerated or dead, but, like Ella Baker striving for justice, he’s never given up.
Now midway through his third decade of teaching in Boston, Dave knows that he has more time behind than ahead of him as a teacher. While he is not yet at the point that Paul was when he first wrote the column I quoted above and included in the book, he’s worked hard and long enough to know in his bones that moment will come sooner than he realizes.
Dave read Paul’s questions and wept.
“I’ve put so much in; what has come of that?” Dave wrote in a comment on this blog.
We all must live with the uncertainty of imprecise knowledge of impact in general, whether as parent, spouse, sibling, or friend.
As a teacher knowing what our time has resulted in can be even more elusive.
I can’t answer that question for either Paul or Dave.
But I can say how much each of these has meant to me in the various stages of our relationships during the combined total of 60 years that I’ve know them.
I can say how they’ve helped me grow.
I can say how what they have taught me has become part of who I am.
And I can say that Dave’s response showed that Paul’s words touched him.
That knowledge of their impact on a student and apprentice and the power of language may not provide total consolation for Paul and Dave during their private moments.
But it does mean that something real and important has come of that.