Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Feeling a Teacher's Influence after 70 Years

In 1980, I interviewed Bryan "Skipper" Hall, a man who had spent fifty years as a Methodist minister in New Mexico. He was eighty-three years old and willing to talk openly and honestly about his life and religious philosophy. Like almost anyone his age, he had endured tragedies throughout his life. Even so, he radiated an infectious optimism that I found inspiring. To this day, he is one of the most thoughtful and philosophically mature people I have met.

At the time of the interview I was a young man facing many crossroads. I was struggling through my first year of teaching high school and beginning work on a graduate degree. I was also two months away from getting married — to Skipper's granddaughter, I might add. I went into the interview with Skipper figuring it would make a good oral history project for my masters in history. I left having learned invaluable lessons about how to live a good life, lessons that have remained with me to this day. I also learned an unforgettable lesson about the importance of teaching that has carried me through an almost forty-year career in education.

In 1974, Skipper's home, one that he and his family had built with their own hands, was destroyed in a forest fire. Skipper and his wife lost virtually everything they owned. When Skipper talked to me about the tragedy he expressed little sentimentality and kept his emotions about the awful loss under control. Life goes on, I suppose.

Five years after the fire, one year before my interview with Skipper, his wife passed away, ending a long struggle with ill health and suffering. Only two months later his son was tragically killed in an automobile accident — a horrific event for Skipper. During the interview he spoke to me about the recent loss of his wife and son in a matter-of-fact way, keeping his emotions in check. I never sensed he was apathetic or unfeeling. On the contrary, I sensed deep emotional pain tempered by a rational understanding of how the universe works. Again, life goes on.

During the ten hours I spent interviewing Skipper, he provided only one moment of uncontrollable emotion. He wept openly when talking about a teacher he had not seen for seventy years, a teacher who had tried to keep him from dropping out of school. While talking about the teacher his voice broke, and he could not continue speaking. 

"I had a teacher named Morton and she was one of the best teachers I ever had. She was the only one I remember by name. She begged me not to leave school; in fact, she cried about it. Later in life I tried to find her, I wrote back to San Angelo but they couldn’t locate her.… I tried to find her to tell her I went back to school, but I couldn’t find her." 

His memory got the better of him when he told me the story. He lost his composure and motioned for me to turn off the tape recorder. He needed a moment to wipe his tears and get control of himself.

Bryan “Skipper” Hall
SMU Student Body President, 1925-1926
All teachers should know that story. They should know that in the midst of all their hard work and frustration — during the dark days when they doubt whether they can even remain in the classroom — they can think about Skipper Hall and the teacher who touched him so deeply. Skipper's story should give teachers a broader sense of the importance of their work and the tremendous influence they can have on students. 

If you are a teacher, just think how seventy years from now — in the year 2086 — some elderly person who has already lived a productive and inspiring life might be thinking fondly of you and how you affected them. It's a humbling (and sometimes terrifying) thought.

Skipper Hall taught me that the power of teaching works in mysterious ways, reaching across generations with wisdom, hope, and inspiration.Teaching is, indeed, a noble profession.





© 2012 James L. Smith

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