Ami, a former student in her sixth year of teaching at a middle school, came to visit. Quite delightedly, she presented me with a button -- one of those laminated buttons you get at conferences. She had had 200 of these made for the opening day of the school year. The idea was to hand them out to teachers -- classroom veterans as well as brand new members of the profession -- in order to inspire and reward folks on their first day back.
Ami is a brilliant teacher and a wonderful woman. It turns out, however, that she is not the world's best proofreader. Based on the prototype she had handed to the printers, Ami wound up with 200 buttons declaring -- and I quote exactly-- "Teachers Are My Hepoes."
In charge of the opening day festivities, designated as an honor by her district, her role was to make everyone feel both welcome and excited. What she ended up doing was starting off the new school year handing her colleagues a button that made no sense.
You've all figured out by now that it should have read "Teachers Are My Heroes." You would have thought that one little piece of a line on a letter wouldn't make all that much of a difference, but of course it is those small differences-- the details in life -- that change the world immeasurably for better or worse.
When we start teaching, it's the grand ideas that motivate us and that's how it should be. We are driven to teach because we believe that we can make a difference. Even the most cynical among us -- and that can be a pretty big group -- know we have sway in the world of our classroom. What to us appears an ordinary day can have unfathomable echoes for one of our students.
All of us remember a moment when something in our lives at school changed us; if we didn't want to have that kind of significant relationship with the next generation, after all, we could have worked retail. If you're selling shoes, on a bad day you might make a lady with thick ankles feel self-conscious. On a bad day in a classroom, you can scare somebody out of the love of reading or terrify him or her into a lifelong fear of long division. (While I was not subject to the first of these, I am a casualty of the second.) Perhaps one of our mottos as teachers should be an adaptation of the Hippocratic oath - the first thing is to do no harm. Some days it's simply heroic to avoid the too easy sarcastic remark or the too simple rebuff.
So what did Ami do with 200 purple "Teachers are hepoes" buttons? She decided to make the word "hepo" the focus of her welcoming address to the faculty. "When I picked them up at 7 in the morning, I thought about spending the next two hours making the 'p' into an 'r' by using a Sharpie in order to cleverly disguise the mistake. But not only is life too short -- it was realizing that the mistake was not so egregious as to ruin the rest of the year for anyone except the most dour pedant. And that person probably shouldn't be walking into the building."
Instead of apologizing, Ami explained that while "heroes" were perfect creatures and therefore beyond the grasp of the mere mortal, "hepoes" could be the more human expression of an admirable creature. While we all hope that the new school year will give us opportunities to demonstrate the best parts of ourselves, to bring out our heroic qualities -- generosity of spirit, ability to inspire, willingness to accommodate, and willingness to lead -- we also know that there are going to times when the least effective, least admirable aspects of ourselves will emerge.
There will be days when we are short tempered, frustrated, overwhelmed, and disorganized. What we need to remember is that even on those days, it can be the smallest thing that we do -- when we offer a genuine smile to a coworker, when we give an even offhand compliment to a student -- which can redeem an otherwise featureless day. We should remember to make the best of everything good while remembering to step around -- or leap over -- the worst. And when facing a tough time, we should remember that perhaps even though we can't be somebody's hero, we might be able to manage when all is said and done, be the "hepo" in the life of one of our students.
Regina Barreca, professor of English, University of Connecticut
WEB SITE: Gina Barreca
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