Lots of people have lots of reasons for teaching. Some are so beautifully stated that they bring tears to my eyes. But as I read them I realize that none of them are me. Their reasons are not my reasons.
I don’t want to change the world. When I’m really honest with myself, I’m not interested in this world-changing business. Joseph Campbell said, “When we talk about settling the world’s problems, we’re barking up the wrong tree. The world is perfect. It’s a mess. It has always been a mess. We are not going to change it. Our job is to straighten out our own lives.”
And yet. Andyetandyetandyet. I love the starfish story. The star thrower isn’t trying to change the world. Yet we the readers recognize that she is changing the world, one starfish at a time. This to me is the essence of teaching. The world might be burning down, the barbarians might be pounding at the gate, but I, as a teacher, will stop, catch a breath, help that one student understand that algebra problem, show that one kid some amazing effect, give that one person one more experience they didn’t expect to have. Maybe it matters later, maybe it doesn’t. I don’t care. In that one moment, that moment of connection, that moment of shared effort for a common goal, there is beauty, and elegance, and poetry.
I don’t believe I have a calling. I believe we make our own destiny. I don’t believe I have a God-given gift, because I don’t believe in God. That’s more than an existential question for me, it’s a philosophy. I believe we create our own meaning. If I’m a good teacher, and I believe that I am, it’s because I’ve chosen to become so. I own my choice. In a powerful sense, my choice is me.
I don’t think people need to understand science. Again, Joseph Campbell – “Go on, live your life, it’s a good life, you don’t need this. I don’t believe in being interested in a subject because it’s said to be important or interesting. But, I believe, with the proper introduction, this subject may just catch you.” I believe science is a joy and a pleasure. Certainly it’s useful, but that’s incidental. And, incidentally, the usefulness comes down to joy and pleasure itself, if you follow it far enough. For what is life for, if not for joy and pleasure? The process of learning, of building explanations, of building castles in my mind, and the process of building a world from bricks and metal are one and the same. If you disagree, well then, go on and live your life. Find your own passions. I’m not trying to change the world. Even if, along the way, I do.
Whitman said, “What good amid these, O me, O life? Answer. That you are here, that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you will contribute a verse.” My verse is my work, my teaching, the starfish I’ve tossed and will continue to toss. Where do they go after I’ve tossed them? That I do not know, but in that moment of that connection, that act based on blind belief that one moment really does matter, therein you will find my story. Carl Sagan said it best. “When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.” I’m in love. And so I teach.