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On Point

'Second' Thoughts

By David R. Denny

I am a survivor! 

Ten years have passed since I changed careers. One day I was in the pulpit preaching from the book of Isaiah, inspired by the winged seraphim; the next day I was standing in a charged classroom filled with skinny eighth-graders. One day I was exhorting the faithful to believe in things unseen; the next day I was telling Johnny to spit out his gum. Once a Sunday meant exhilaration, oratory, exhaustion; now it means rest and recovery from lesson plans and grading papers.

Five years ago I paused on this new trail to reflect, in this magazine, on my five-year journey. Now that I’ve passed the 10-year milestone I have some second thoughts to offer.

Teaching is a calling. Moses stared at a burning bush. St. Paul saw the light. Both men found a calling. Though teaching has dimensions different from the spiritual, it still borders on the sacred and summons all who would teach to surrender to a higher cause. Although the profession may be entered into lightly, like marriages that skip naively along a perilous path, this only leads to complications.  

Teaching links souls, the soul of the teacher to the soul of the student. This doesn’t happen in banking or real estate or scrabble. But it happens when a troubled boy or girl pauses after math class to ask a teacher why. Why don’t my parents love me? Why am I hungry? Why did my dad hit me last night? This is where the corridors of caring open between the student and the teacher and this is where the profession becomes a calling.

I had a calling to preach. It came early while I was just a kid. The desire to preach burned in my heart. As I pause after 10 years as a teacher, I see the same contours of that calling. Anyone who casually enters the realm of the young without sensing this fifth dimension will shortly find himself lost in a thicket of regrets and desperately seeking the exit.

Teaching requires passion. When I was in high school, I couldn’t wait to escape French class at 3 pm. While the teacher paced and parsed, I dribbled. She chalked syntax while I leapt for a rebound. She lived in a world of exotic words; I lived in a dream of glory and sports fame. Basketball was my passion.

Teaching requires a similar obsession. Passion looks beyond the administrators who worry us all to death. It sees through the veil of obligation into a realm infused with ideas, hope and inspiration. 

Passion is not excitement. It’s a deeper emotion that sinks roots and survives the droughts that are part of this profession. It’s not hilarity. It’s the quiet in the room after a discussion of the Holocaust that leads one boy to hide a tear and a girl in the corner to sigh. It’s in this twinkle of time that the teacher scans the faces and sees that passion is alive.

Of course I realize all too well that these halcyon moments are fleeting and often cannot occur at all until you have kicked Julie out of the room for sticking gum in Jim’s ear who had just passed a suggestive note about Julie to Tom who denied it all when you temporarily set passion to the side and started your interrogation.

Teaching changes lives. As a minister, I often visited patients in the ICU, counseled starry-eyed couples awaiting marriage, visited jails and helped pick up the pieces. I lived in an ambience of changed lives. I was privy to private vulnerabilities and often a catalyst in personal renewal. Teaching speaks the same language.

I learned early in my first year of teaching that the same dynamic existed here in the classroom. I still remember Lisa. She was a confident, almost cocky eighth-grader. She wanted to be a lawyer. I applauded her choice and primed her with the joys of writing. She won a writing contest I sponsored and I awarded her a computer. (I can’t believe I did that)! Lisa went to college and called me one day to tell me that she was an English major and striving to be a writer because of my class.

The sheer numbers are astonishing: teach one year and you touch 100 kids; teach five years and the numbers multiply; teach 10 years and you can change worlds. A thousand students have passed in and out of my classroom since I started! Just say the number slowly, like you’re sipping a delicate coffee or a sparkling wine. Smell the aroma of unimagined possibilities. A thousand kids. A thousand emerging hearts. Not all open to your direction and advice, but still. Play the odds. Even a fraction of them is enough to set off a small tsunami of creative careers and solid citizenship.

Denny, a member of the Virginia Beach Education Association, teaches English at Lynnhaven Middle School.



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