Graduation season is a poignant time. This year is especially so, as my oldest son, Nicholas, is graduating with his 2018 Boone High School Senior Class. It’s hard not to reflect on the indelible mark teachers leave on our lives. I wonder if teachers know that we think about them years later? That we remember them for the kind word that made a difference, that we appreciate how hard they pushed us, that some of them set standards for us that would last a lifetime?
What’s your best teacher memory? Who made the greatest impact and why? When I think about all the amazing teachers I had, it’s hard to choose.
What I remember about my favorite teachers is that their classrooms were a place that seemed suspended in time. Where we, as a group, became so transfixed by the subject matter that we were both startled and sorry when the bell rang. Ms. Karen Smith, my World History teacher at Oak Ridge High School in Orlando, knew exactly how to weave that sort of magic.
She inspired me to think deeply about the connection between history and human nature. To be forever curious not just about present circumstances but what might happen 30 steps down the line, the ramifications, the consequences. Every day Ms. Smith used her considerable story-telling skills to breathe life into events, contrasting man’s inhumanity to man with examples of great bravery and grace.
She taught us to envision the gritty reality of history, to try to grasp the horrific evil of the Holocaust, to see Roman politics as a parallel to modern times, to understand that history is a roadmap for the future. I think of her often and the way she deftly drew us high-school kids into a mesmerizing conversation about the human condition without realizing that we were getting hooked on history.
Thanks to her teaching style, I had no trouble memorizing dates, people and facts, as they were all part of a tremendous story. I looked forward to Ms. Smith’s long-form essay tests because it was a way to continue the conversation with her. I can’t imagine the time it took her to read all our essays and write all her insightful, even pointed comments. I hope she was pleased to see lessons reinterpreted and analyzed by students who had come to love the content of her class. I hope she realized that we loved her for talking to us like adults, for expecting us to digest big ugly truths to begin our own journeys of understanding.
Ms. Smith must have known we were crazy about her. Current and past students were always popping in to say hi or just hang out. Now, decades later, I realize what a significant impact she had on me. I have never stopped studying and considering how history affects us today. I’m sure I’m not alone among her students. That’s the real legacy of Ms. Karen Smith, World History teacher. She got us to think beyond our self-absorbed teenage selves, and she did it in the wisest, most brilliant way — by telling a story.