Anne Lamott on the Life-Giving Power of Great Teachers
By Maria Popova
“You try to appeal to the goodness of every human being and you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone,” the great civil rights leader John Lewis insisted. A century earlier, Helen Keller, a supreme optimist of the human spirit, asserted that “the highest result of education is tolerance.” It can be said, then, that if we are bent on building an ennobled world of dignity for all, nowhere is the urgency of not giving up on any human being greater than in education.
That’s what Anne Lamott explores in a beautiful passage from Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair (public library) — the miraculous little book that gave us Lamott on how we endure with sanity in a crazy world and the essential difference between routine and ritual.
People who teach others to read or to navigate a library, who don’t give up on slow or challenged students, will get the best seats in heaven. I don’t know a lot, but I know this to be true.
My brother teaches special education at a local high school. I think he will be seated near the Godiva chocolate fountain on the other side of eternity. Our father taught English and writing to the prisoners at San Quentin in the fifties and sixties. All good teachers know that inside a remote or angry person is a soul, way deep down, capable of a full human life — a person with hope of a better story, who has allies, and can read.
Echoing Parker Palmer’s luminous wisdom on education as a spiritual practice, Lamott adds:
To me, teaching is a holy calling, especially with students less likely to succeed. It’s the gift not only of not giving up on people, but of even figuring out where to begin.
You start wherever you can. You see a great need, so you thread a needle, you tie a knot in your thread. You find one place in the cloth through which to take one stitch, one simple stitch, nothing fancy, just one that’s strong and true. The knot will anchor your thread. Once that’s done, you take one more stitch — teach someone the alphabet, say, no matter how long that takes, and then how to read Dr. Seuss, and Charlotte’s Web, and A Wrinkle in Time, and then, while you’re at it, how to get a GED. Empathy is meaning.
Complement this fragment of the wholly magnificent Stitches with John Dewey on the proper purpose of education, Nietzsche on its true value, and the beautiful letter of gratitude Albert Camus sent to his childhood teacher shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize, then revisit Lamott on how perfectionism kills creativity, the greatest gift of friendship, and how we keep ourselves small with people-pleasing.
Published June 6, 2016