July 10, 2000
Teachers strive to care equally about each of the students they teach. For most of us however, some students just stand out and profoundly influenced our lives.
Years ago, I had a young Hispanic boy in my first year chemistry class who I will never forget. Our experiences together impressed upon me the tremendous influence that just a few minutes of attention and affirmation can have on a young life.
Juan came from a very poor, single parent home. Hardship had made Juan’s mother disinterested in his education and in his life in general. All of her time had to be devoted to a roof over their heads and food on the table.
Throughout the year, I noticed that Juan had an unusual ability to solve equations and to correlate abstract relationships between concepts. Juan picked up new ideas as fast as any student I’ve ever had; maybe faster.
I was shocked when he approached me after school one day to tell me that he liked chemistry, but did not think he was smart enough to attend college. He did not feel that his mother would be interested in helping him with school. What should he do with his life?
I explained to Juan that he was one of my very best students. His face lit up with excitement and he looked at me incredulously. I proceeded to explain to him that he could apply for scholarships, loans and federal grants to pay for college.
I told him I would be glad to help him find a way to get his degree as it would be a shame to waste such a brilliant mind.
Finally, I told Juan that I would be teaching advanced placement chemistry next year and I was really hoping that he would take the class.
Juan looked as though he would need to re-think his entire life. He told me that he would consider what I had said.
The next morning, I went out for my daily jog around the block. I was startled when Juan appeared from nowhere on my front lawn.
“Hi, Mr. Johnson,” Juan said cheerfully. “I have been thinking about what you told me yesterday and I am going to take your advanced placement class. Did you know that I live just across the street?”
I hadn’t known that Juan was my neighbor. I invited him to jog with me and from then on, Juan would join me before school several mornings each week for a half-hour jog. What I noticed more than anything about Juan was that he was searching for affirmation; that his life had value.
We got to know each other quite well. We were both Dallas Cowboys fans, we both liked the outdoors and we both liked math and science. He was no longer just a student; he was a young life I was given the opportunity to help mold.
Soon, Juan was joining my family for evening games of Monopoly, or Hearts. When I took my own two children fishing, we invited him along and he caught his first fish.
Juan was my best student that year in advanced placement chemistry. His skills and abilities continued to grow and he never tired of mind-bending calculations or homework.
His confidence increased and he literally blossomed before my eyes. Other students wanted to be Juan’s lab partner and he developed into a popular outgoing young man.
As the end of the year approached, Juan stayed after school one day to thank me for my interest in his life. I was profoundly moved when he told me that I had changed his life. He told me that I, more than anyone else, had given his life-value, purpose and direction. [I cried. ]
He got a 5 on the advanced placement chemistry exam and he was awarded enough scholarship assistance that he was able to attend the local university.
I was very proud of him and not surprised when he graduated with a degree in Chemical Engineering.
We stayed in touch over the years and eventually, Juan moved into the top management level of an international corporation.
I have often wondered how both of our lives would have been different had our paths not crossed. I maybe would have never learned the true value of a teacher. I have applied it many times since.
When I thought of leaving the teaching profession for a career in medicine several years later, I had a choice to make. I knew I could make a good living in medicine; but would it pay the dividends that teaching did? Juan stood out in my mind.
How important had my encouragement and affirmation really been to him and to the path he would follow?
The life of a teacher is often a life of poverty in the material sense. However, teachers have the unique opportunity to inspire their students to reach for the stars.
What could be a more worthwhile pursuit? Who could have known the importance of such a small investment in the life of a young man?
I was so thankful that I took the time to encourage Juan to reach; to be all that he could be.
My experiences with Juan [and many others since] contributed to my decision to remain in the classroom. My love for my students and for the subject I teach has continued to grow over the years.
I consider myself most fortunate to be a teacher and to have been a part of so many young lives; to encourage their hopes and their dreams.
I may not drive the nicest car on the block and I may not live in the nicest house, but I consider myself very rich in the things that count the most. I get to have a small part in the dreams of the next generation.
A Few Minutes of Kindness By Steve Johnson
[2009 Nevada State Teacher of the Year]
Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales
http://www.chickensoup.com/ Changing Lives One Story At A Time