My mother-in-law was a schoolteacher. She taught junior high math in Pontiac, Michigan until her retirement, But one day years earlier, when she was sixteen, she was carrying a slip of paper to each of her high school instructors in Laporte, Indiana. Once it had all the necessary signatures, she would be free to leave school forever. She was dropping out, and looking forward to it. She didn’t like school, she didn’t feel smart, and any job in town seemed to promise a quicker path to independence than more sitting around in classrooms.
But her physical education instructor wouldn’t sign. Not right away. Rosie had to show up after school every day for a week to help put the equipment away. After that, she’d get her signature.
You can already see the end of the story. The teacher talks to the student every day, not across a desk with the barrier and force of authority, but in the middle of work, the two women lifting mats and reshelving weights together while they chat. The last signature is never obtained, Rosie stays in school, Rosie goes to college, Rosie teaches a generation of kids.
The part of the story I want to tell you is this. My MIL went back to her hometown when she retired and found this teacher, to thank her for that life-changing week. And the teacher didn’t remember it at all. During that series of small encounters that changed my mother-in-law’s life, the teacher’s life was not being changed. She didn’t imprint her own actions on her memory with pride. She certainly knew what she was doing, a short-term act of caring that might have long-term results, but she didn’t know what those results would be.
I think about results a lot these days.
I think about results as my profession tries to make art and deliver performance under restraints that were unimaginable less than a year ago, and which continue to feel unsupportable at times.
I think about results as an educator myself, in an atmosphere where short-term results have eclipsed the long game, where our students have been trained by their culture to expect quick development and to feel they’ve failed when it doesn’t work that way.
And I thought about results a lot this weekend when I ran away for a catch-up with my sister. In the small town where we met up, there wasn’t much mask-wearing. There was nowhere to find food or fuel except where mouths and noses were breathing freely.
Every human life is a miracle. As much as we are fascinated by our own thoughts and narratives, almost everything that happens to us is out of our control. I’m in my thirty-eighth year of relationship with Rosie’s son, and that’s only true because she went to college, moved to Detroit, and married a fellow teacher. That Laporte physical education teacher, like so many thousands of people we’ll never know, had a hand in our lives.
To make any decision, to move in the world, is to affect everything around us, for good and for ill. In a culture of goal-setting and five-year plans, we imagine that we understand what we’re doing and what the results will be. But mostly, we’ll never know what we made happen. But we can be pretty confident that our own individual discomfort or pleasure was the least of it.
To everyone who’s making music outside in the cold, in a parking garage, or on a digital stream –
To everyone who’s keeping faith with long-term learning –
To everyone who’s putting fabric on their face and measuring out that six-foot distance in their heads –
You have no idea whose life you are saving. Thank you. Hang in there.