The shameful release of New York’s public ranking of teachers by name caused me to think about the true influence teachers have on all of our lives. The dedication, inspiration, knowledge and influence of men and women given in such service has never been fully appreciated, or properly compensated.
The best teachers I had were those that pushed, prodded, cheered, critiqued, and shaped both me and my work. They are too numerous to list here. So, I will talk about the one who continues to influence my work.
Approaching the final stages of my second book, What Do You Stand For?, I was referred to five editors. The list quickly narrowed to two, both of whom happened to be named Laura. Laura number 1 was located on the east coast; number 2 on the west. Both were clearly capable and friendly, however, each had a different method of operation. Laura number 1 would take the book and thirty days later send me detailed notes which we would then discuss. Laura number 2, preferred the Socratic method of question and answer by phone.
I chose both for one important reason: I wanted two opinions. So, while east coast Laura was working away for thirty days, I began 4 weeks of phone conversations with my personal Socrates – Laura Tennen.
On the surface, Laura Tennen’s approach seemed simple, but in reality, it became a very skillful look inside me to uncover and expose what I really wanted to say. On the third day, her questions became so exasperatingly relentless (in a nice way), that in frustration I said something like, “Look, the point of the story is… (insert piece of brilliance here).”
Laura would calmly respond, “So, why not say it just like that?”
Me: (Light bulb goes on.) I was beginning to get it.
During one marathon conversation, we went back and forth over three paragraphs… THREE paragraphs! At one point, I stopped and asked, “Why all the fuss over three paragraphs?”
“Because,” she said, “this is the crux of the entire story. You need to make this absolutely clear in the mind of the reader.”
She was right. When I returned to our conversation after the necessary changes, she simply said, “See, isn’t that clearer?”
During the four weeks of work with Laura Tennen, I kept wondering what east coast Laura would say. How would the two compare, and what if there were major differences between them?
Nearing the end of our work, Laura Tennen focused on the book’s opening. “It’s not right,” she said.
“What do you mean, ‘not right’?”
She asked me to read it.
“A visit to New York inspired the first of many visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was on the second floor of this great museum that I was transformed by a painting.”
“So,” I asked again, “What’s not right?”
“Your opening has to inspire your reader to read on. It has to incorporate the book’s title and purpose.” She then asked me to distill all of this into whatever it was that I got out of the painting – The Death of Socrates – that “transformed” me. And I was to do all of this in one sentence. My homework was to spend the weekend reflecting and writing and come back on Monday with the requisite “magical” opening sentence, a sentence that met all the requirements and “inspire the reader to read on.”
Three days followed; three days of sitting and thinking and writing, thinking some more, writing some more. Monday comes and my assignment is ready for assessment by the teacher. “But,” I tell her, “it’s not all in one sentence.”
“That’s okay,” Laura said. “Read it to me.”
New version: “Sometimes the purpose of a question is to learn something about ourselves. And sometimes that question comes in the form of a painting.”
She never suggested a single word or phrase. She just asked me to think. And that is the critical component that a real teacher brings to the student: to think and draw out the best in us.
Oh, and what of Laura number 1’s comments? Both were in complete agreement.
A good teacher puts us in touch with our best abilities, our best thoughts, our best selves. A good teacher is priceless.