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Life Lessons

Essay contest winner examines the many roles expected of teachers today

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Close your eyes and picture your favorite teacher. When we think of our favorite teacher, we don’t necessarily think of the one with the easiest class or with the most jokes. Our favorite teacher is one who is more than merely a lecturer. Someone who goes beyond the realm of an instructor and touches our lives tremendously.

A favorite teacher is one who is a parent and mentor to us. Not just someone who grades our tests, but someone who tests our character. Teachers are the backbone of mankind. They are the ones who teach us to color in the lines, but they are also the ones who ensure that we learn to communicate effectively with our peers. Teachers are more than their chalkboards. They are the foundation of our society of thinkers, makers and doers.

In Ernest J. Gaines’ “A Lesson Before Dying,” Grant Wiggins is given a task very similar to the one teachers today are given. Not to grade 500 test papers by the end of the week, but to teach someone to be a productive citizen. In Grant’s case, he must teach Jefferson, who is condemned to death, what it is to truly be a man and die with dignity. Many teachers today are given students who need to be taught more than what the curriculum can teach them, and they accept their challenges head on. Grant was not a life coach, he wasn’t a minister, he was just an ordinary person given an extraordinary task.

“I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are, and what you can be.” These empowering words from Grant are the same words that come from teachers all over the world. A good teacher pushes his or her students to exceed the limits placed on them and to shoot for the stars. The state of Louisiana looked at Jefferson as nothing more than a “mindless hog,” but Grant didn’t allow him to sit and accept that. Grant opened Jefferson’s mind to the novel idea that he was just as much of a man and just as worthy of self-respect as anyone else.

Grant also exemplifies the persistence that teachers, especially today, show every day. Teachers are some of the lowest-paid civil servants, but they consistently come to school every morning, giving their all to their pupils. Grant endures the coldness given so eagerly to him by Jefferson because Grant knows that he is the last resort for Jefferson. Deep down he knows that Jefferson needs him and the lessons he brings. Grant feels the same type of duty to his peers, and teachers feel toward their students. Although he left the South to become educated, he eventually returned, although he hates the dynamic there. It’s apparent to his girlfriend, Vivian, that Grant loves his people so much that he can’t leave them ignorant in the world. Even though our society takes teachers for granted, they continue to give themselves to those who need their knowledge.

Teachers are some of the most important figures a person encounters throughout life. The majority of life is spent in school, and more waking hours are spent with teachers than with parents. Our basic manners are taught to us by our kindergarten and first grade teachers. We learn how to get along with others while in elementary school. What would our world be without “please,” “thank you” and sharing? From the time we learn to write our names to the day we write our first research papers, our teachers are there for us. We grow up with them. Many of the things that previous generations learned from their parents and their community leaders are being taught by teachers. Not to the fault of parents, but society is much more fast-paced now; so many teachable moments for parents are eliminated because we are simply too busy. We are rushing to soccer practice or busy doing homework while our parents are at work or picking up dinner.

Our teachers are the only points of stability left in our lives. No matter what happened the night before, we know we will go to school and our teachers will be there for us. Like parents see the future in their children, teachers see hope for the future in their students. When Grant and Vivian discuss the vicious cycle of black men in their community, he says, “It’s up to Jefferson, my love.” Grant depends on Jefferson to set an example for his peers and set a precedent for those who will come after him to challenge the status quo and to seize their right to be human. Teachers are responsible for much more than passing children from grade school to college. They make it possible for future generations to be successful and dignified people.

Teachers serve as role models for their students as well. An English teacher not only knows how to write an amazing essay but can speak profoundly and with confidence. A math teacher is not only a human calculator but can also approach things with logic and patience. We spend many hours with these phenomenal people, and their excellent traits rub off on us. We strive to gain approval from our teachers on assignments, but we also look for their support of our ideas and behavior.

As Jefferson’s execution grows closer, it becomes apparent that many of Grant's qualities have rubbed off on him. Instead of always being offered food, he takes the initiative to offer a sweet potato to Grant. Standing tall and posing questions, Jefferson is emulating the strong mannerisms that are true to Grant’s self-assured nature. Teachers tend to form a mentorship not unlike the one fashioned between Grant and Jefferson, helping their students develop the skills of a productive citizen. While Miss Emma couldn’t get through to her godson, Jefferson, Grant acts as a liaison between the two, bridging the gap across two worlds. When we are young children, teachers give us the tools to express ourselves to the world. They teach us to read, write and speak with purpose. We do not live in this world alone, so being able to properly express ourselves is a vital asset.

A teacher also has the role of a student, one of the most important aspects of the teacher-student relationship. While a teacher’s first job is to educate, she must also continue to learn from those she teaches. At first glance, it seems impossible that the college-educated Grant could possibly learn anything from Jefferson, the convicted “mindless hog.” We see Grant’s condescending view of his community throughout the book. He has expanded his thinking beyond the community and can’t seem to understand why others haven’t done the same. He admits to the Reverend that he is lost in this world, with no faith and no understanding of his place in the world. How can he teach someone what it is to be a man when he doesn’t know what that means himself?

Throughout his meetings with Jefferson, Grant finds more of himself than he ever had in his time at college. He learns that he needs to share his wisdom with others rather than keep it all to himself. As we watch Jefferson gain his dignity and understanding, we see changes in Grant. The two men walk as equals. Grant learns to show compassion to everyone around him, including Vivian and his grade-school students. The author capitalizes on the change in Grant as well as Jefferson to show us the importance in learning from those you teach.

In conclusion, the biggest obligation of a teacher is being the society’s backbone. Everyone successful in the world or in any position of power was once a student taught by a teacher. A teacher once taught the president and Oprah and will one day teach the person who will develop the cure for cancer. If our teachers were corrupt and insensitive, our world would mirror that image. Our teachers are the most powerful human beings in our society.

The power to change our world for the better resides in the power to pass on knowledge from person to person, and that ability exists in our educators. Before we glorify the works of doctors, engineers and musicians, we should remember that, at one time, they were students. The cornerstone of mankind as we know it are our educators — the ones who made it possible for you to read this essay, understand the thoughts in it, and hopefully communicate them to others. We are all the product of education. It’s time to become truly grateful for the educators in our lives and give them the appreciation they deserve.

Thomas is a senior at Paxon School for Advanced Studies. She won a $1,000 scholarship essay contest based on Ernest J. Gaines’ book “A Lesson Before Dying” as part of The Big Read,  a program of the National Endowment for the Arts, and sponsored by WJCT, Duval County Public Schools, Jacksonville Public Library, Players by the Sea and Clay County School District.

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