The Teacher Becomes the Student

“I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be.”

In “A Lesson Before Dying,” Grant Wiggins tries to teach Jefferson, a man condemned to death, to face his sentence as a man. A difficult task, but teachers often find themselves teaching lessons beyond English, math or science.

An essay contest related to the Ernest J. Gaines novel asked high school seniors to answer these questions: What other “jobs” or “roles” are expected of teachers today? How are they similar or different from those pushed upon Grant?

Danielle Brianna Thomas’ winning essay explores the many complex roles of teachers — leader, instigator, mentor, etc. — as they relate to the major themes in the book.

“A good teacher pushes his or her students to exceed the limits placed on them and to shoot for the stars,” the Paxon School for Advanced Studies senior wrote.

The contest was part of The Big Read, a communitywide effort that invites people to read the same book at the same time, such as “A Lesson Before Dying.” WJCT, Duval County Public Schools, Jacksonville Public Library, Players by the Sea and the School District of Clay County sponsored the $1,000 scholarship contest for graduating high school seniors in Baker, Clay, Duval, Nassau and St. Johns counties.

When she first learned about the essay contest, Thomas hadn’t heard of Gaines’ award-winning book, which was a 1997 Oprah Book Club choice. She didn’t know what to expect.

“It was a lot better than what I thought it would be,” Thomas said. “I actually told my principal he should put it on the summer reading list.”

She said the book’s themes reminded her of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” another serious book that is still “fun to read.” She knew from the title that someone would be learning a “lesson.” As the characters were introduced, she assumed the one who would be doing most of the learning would be Jefferson.

“The biggest thing I learned was that he wasn’t the one who learned the most,” Thomas said.

“While a teacher’s first job is to educate, she must also continue to learn from those she teaches,” Thomas wrote in her essay.

When Thomas thought about the teachers in her life, there were a few who stuck out in her mind, those who taught her memorable lessons.

Cynthia Bowman, her teacher in the gifted program from first through seventh grades, was the first to put magnet schools on Thomas’ radar. She always pushed Thomas to try new things, like writing a research paper.

“I learned that I loved writing,” Thomas said. “The other kids hated it. Ever since then, I just loved it.”

She said her favorite teacher is Jon Nerf, who taught English during her junior year. He was the hardest teacher she ever had, but she still uses all the things she learned from him, from his list of 240 SAT vocabulary words that students lovingly called “Nerf words,” to going beyond the basic curriculum and having conversations with his class. Thomas said his offhanded discussion about tragic heroes and tragic flaws has come in handy during her current reading of “Macbeth.”

“I didn’t appreciate it when I had him, but now that I don’t have him, I realize how much he taught me.”

Nerf, now in his first year at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, was gratified to hear Thomas’ assessment.

“That’s my job: to prepare my students for the next level, whatever that is.”

But he also said opportunities to learn from his students have made him a better teacher. The biggest lesson his students have taught him? To listen.

“If I listen, I often find out what my students need or find out how my course can help them,” Nerf said. “If you listen to them, you can reach them through the things that interest them.”

It might be some innocuous fact or a cultural interest such as music that can help bridge the gap between teacher and student.

“I learn something about them that makes me approach them as humans, not just students.”

Nerf usually teaches literature that has multiple meanings, but after 24 years of teaching (13 at Forrest High School, 10 at Paxon, one at DA), his students’ observations can still surprise him.

“They make me look at the book in a way that I wasn’t prepared to talk about.”

Sometimes what he hears is touching, such as the challenges lesbian, gay and transgender students face.

“I find that I’m having to think a completely different way.”

Nerf said hearing about Thomas’ success as the essay winner is one of the reasons teaching is so rewarding.

“It makes you realize why you did this. You don’t do it for yourself, you do it for the kids. It gives you fuel to keep on going.”

When Nerf was a junior at Bishop Kenny High School, his English teacher, Frank Smith, made a lasting impression, with his memorable quotations and lessons.

“He made dry, boring works of literature come to life for me,” Nerf said.

Years later at a teacher training session, Nerf saw Smith. He couldn’t wait to talk to him.

“You may not remember me, but I’m a teacher because of your influence on me,” he told Smith.

It’s a good bet that Smith was just as proud of Nerf as Nerf feels about Thomas’ accomplishment.

Smith probably has stories about learning from his students as well. It’s the education circle of life. Cue the theme song from “The Lion King.”

Thomas, who plans to attend the University of North Florida (Nerf’s alma mater) to major in child psychology, could very well continue the cycle.

“They have so much to teach you, you never think that they are learning from you, too.”