“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” ~ Henry Adams
I met Robert when I was 12.
My older brother was doing a play and he was the director. He was in charge of the high school drama program in my hometown. I got to know him two years later when I started high school. He was 26, about to turn 27. He’d been teaching for three years by then. I guess that means that he’d finished a Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree before he turned 24. He later got his Ph.D., doing a good chunk of his course work during a one-year sabbatical when I was 16.
He was in Utah the year my parents split up and started divorce proceedings. He wrote me encouraging, comforting letters during that period of time. (Knowing how rigorous a Ph.D. program is, I don’t know how he found the time to do that. On a manual typewriter, no less.) Those letters were a lifeline. They saved me, again and again.
“The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.” ~ Mark van Doren
Robert was a wonderful, inspiring, gifted teacher.
I had him for freshman, sophomore, and senior year.
What did he teach me?
He taught me about life. About love; watching him with his wife always inspired me. He taught me about acting and about the theater. About Shakespeare and finding and using my voice. He introduced me to the Stanislavski method and Thornton Wilder. He encouraged my artistic sensibilities. He recognized the “Fragile. Handle with Care,” sign on my forehead. He talked to me like a person, not a teenager.
I babysat his kid. I visited his house. We traveled with Drama Club to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland every summer during high school. He gave me a sense of open possibility about life, about art, about the future.
I thought of him then and still do, as a surrogate father.
My father was gone. He left me when I was 16 — after having an affair with a woman half his age. So, I had no father at that time in my life. And I needed a father figure. I needed someone I could turn to and trust. Robert was that person. He nurtured and cared for my well-being at a time that I desperately needed it.
He treated me with respect. He infused me with the sense that I mattered.
Is it any surprise that we’re still friends 42 years later?
“The best teachers teach from the heart, not from the book.” ~ Anonymous
Robert was a towering figure in my life. I don’t think I can ever express how much that time has meant to me.
And, here’s the thing.
He did that for so many of his students.
I am not the only one. Of course, our relationships are unique, but he changed each one of us — in different but important ways — for the better. I became a better person because I knew him.
My heart changed.
I certainly became the teacher I am because of his influence and care.
My work as an educator is the direct result of his. If I’ve had a positive influence on my students, it is only because at 14, I met a teacher who saw something in me that I couldn’t see at the time: potential, raw ability, art, open-heartedness.
He saw it and he encouraged it to flower.
So much of my subsequent life opened because of him.
How do you thank someone for such deep care? How?
There are no words that can adequately express it.
Thank you, Robert. Thank you.
It isn’t enough but it’s all I’ve got:
Thank you for changing me for the better.
© 2016 Shavawn M. Berry All rights reserved
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I’d love to hear your stories about the teachers who made a difference for you. Who profoundly influenced your life? A teacher? A mentor? A friend? Share their stories!