Besides Artist Strong, I write for a blog called A Hopeful Sign. It has a wonderful, wonderful community of people who contribute articles and share hope with others. It is a means of encouraging resilience in others and celebrates the good we often push by the wayside when darker stories come to light. One category within the blog that I helped create is called Why Teachers Matter. This section of the blog means more to me than perhaps much of any of my social media ventures I work on. Why? Because the rest of my projects and all of the motivation I have may not exist without those formative teachers that were in my life. Today I share my story of Mr. Fuller.
Ever since I can remember I was always worried about getting things wrong. It was a perfectionism that was hard to miss when tears would easily brim over if I earned anything less than the highest mark. First impressions for new teachers were part of that package. I wanted to let them know I was eager to please, going to do my best and was desperately hoping for their approval and positive feedback. From day one, Mr. Fuller had me beat.
I came into my middle school English class and my friend Stephanie and I were exchanging Bop Magazine photos of celebrities we had a crush on. She had found a great photograph of Brad Pitt and was trading me that for someone else. Class had yet to begin so we sat next to each other and began the exchange. Mr. Fuller, with his brightly colored bow tie and exaggerated gait, jumped over to us, and grabbed the poster straight out of my hand. I was horrified; I could already feel the red seeping into my face. He leaped onto the top of his desk wielding the small poster for everyone to see and starting calling out, “Should men be treated like a piece of meat?! No I say!” I’m pretty sure the dialogue continued but the blood rushing to my head and the attention it was bringing to me made me want to disappear into my chair. Yet, everyone was laughing, Mr. Fuller included, and he had these bright welcoming eyes that made me think this was going to be a special class. Stephanie and I exchanged glances and we joined in the laughter. (He also gave me back my poster).
At some point in the class he introduced to us a black and white composition notebook. Each of us received one. It was a space to write whatever we wanted. Anything that came to mind, drawings, poetry, everything could be included in this little black book. He promised never to show it to anyone and also had us put some guided assignments in there. And it was in those books (I can’t even remember how many I filled, but it was many), I discovered confidence in my voice and ideas, something I never took risk in doing because it could be wrong. Mr. Fuller would write comments that truly inspired me, and pushed me to write more, experiment, try new things and it was the first time in my life that I took risk without wondering if there was a right or a wrong way to do things. It was also the first place I felt safe and free from judgment. There was no grade for the content that I recall, only for the effort and time commitment you put into the book.
I remember classes filled with laughter and learning. I remember learning about poetry through the songs of the Boss (he loved Springsteen) and I remember big group circles where we shared ideas, poems, stories and investigated novels together. Those composition books were always a part of it. We all looked forward to the day he handed them back to us. I would anxiously flip through the book looking for his red or green scrawl, hoping I had done something that impressed him. Those books will always be one of my most treasured spaces. I still journal and sketch today in large part thanks to this man. He gifted me the understanding that risk is important and it is through problems and mistakes that we learn the most. I try my best to communicate that same idea to my students today and I’m sure I’m a teacher in part because of you, Mr. Fuller. Thank you.
We all have a responsibility to celebrate and thank those that help us through hard times or motivate or challenge us in some way. Educators try to do this on a daily basis and it’s generally a thankless job. That is why there are articles and jokes about “what do teachers really do?” Yet, most people I know can name at least one teacher in their lives and how that person was formative. Would you be that lawyer/doctor/teacher/etc. if someone in education hadn’t helped you along and encouraged you to dream big? It is time to step up and take the responsibility that comes with such a gift. Share your story so we can celebrate more teachers and create a culture that encourages people into a profession that has rewards much greater than “summers off.” It is time to say thank you.