Editor’s note: Today’s post comes from volunteer and Board member Allison Matthews. She teaches fourth grade.
We all can think of exemplary teachers who have taught us powerful lessons. Our government and communities cry out for more highly-qualified teachers in the classroom, and districts across the country nominate one outstanding Teacher of the Year annually. There’s no doubt about it: We love teachers who excel at what they do! But in all our talk about exemplary educators, we have marginalized one group that’s been crying for attention for years: imaginary teachers. That’s right, friends! We can learn a TON from characters in books. They have no voices with which to speak, and yet the lessons they emblazon in our minds will last much longer than the pages on which those lessons are written. We have been ignoring these fictitious, fake teachers among us, and it’s time we recognize the contributions they have made to our well-being. I’ll start with a few shout-outs to some of my favorites.
When I’m tempted to make excuses for my shortcomings, I always picture Emma’s noble Mr. Knightley, furrowing his brow and saying, “There is one thing, Emma, a man can always do if he chooses, and that is his duty.” That message is especially powerful in the book because he’s sharing it with Emma, a person he actually likes and cares for a great deal. But that doesn’t stop him from telling it like it is and giving her a reminder she needs to hear. You just can’t sneak anything by Mr. Knightley—he doesn’t take junk from anyone, and he doesn’t play favorites.
When I’m feeling overwhelmed by an obstacle in my path, I think of Santiago, the old man from The Old Man and the Sea. He taught me that even when you’ve worn blisters into your hands and there’s a bone spur in your heel and you’ve spent 3 dehydrated days trying to catch a giant fish … you can still think to yourself, “We were born lucky!” because, hey, at least you don’t have to catch the moon or the sun. Who can whine when such a cheerful teacher is leading the class?
One of my favorite lessons was taught by a boy called Alec Bings, Who Sees Through Things. This Phantom Tollbooth character shows his friend, Milo, a bucket of water and explains, “from an ant’s point of view, that’s a vast ocean, from an elephant’s just a cool drink, and to a fish, of course, it’s home. So, you see, the way you see things depends a great deal on where you look at them from.” I think of that bucket of water a lot when I’m trying to understand why other people act the way they do. Their decisions may not be what I would choose, but then again, they’re starting from a completely different point of view. Alec Bings is a teacher who knew the power one simple picture can have in driving a lesson home.
Then, of course, are the teachers who lead by example. One of the greatest fictional leaders I can think of is from that illustrious, time-honored, highly sophisticated classic, The Little Engine That Could. In the face of nearly insurmountable difficulties, she just tells herself, “I think I can! I think I can!” — and she can. And if a goofy blue train from a children’s book can be that powerful, what’s to stop me from overcoming the obstacles in my path?
Stuffy Englishmen, tenacious old men, floating fantasy characters, and talking trains—I have been a student of all these exemplary teachers and more. I’m so blessed to be a tutor for Turning Pages, because it gives me the opportunity to make these ltierary lessons available to other people!