Aug 25, 2007

My Personal Influences: Teachers & Mentors

As I begin my tenth year as a professional educator, it seems like the appropriate time to reflect on the teachers and mentors who have made an impact in my life. Teaching is often a thankless job and so I suppose this is my small effort to rectify that injustice.

They say that we stand on the shoulders of giants and this amazing group of men and women were--and are--giants to me. Just about everyone on this list was someone that could have , and perhaps for a time did, intimidate me. But the remarkable thing is that all of these mentors made me feel safe enough to risk learning, all inspired confidence in me, and all graciously allowed me to stand on their shoulders.

My list includes two high school teachers, two college professors, one mentor in my creative endeavors, and a couple that have taught me a great deal about marriage.

The names:

Dan Shor
Dr. Øystein LaBianca

Dr. Edwin Hernandez
Paul Viar
Wanda Hopkins
Rex & Clarie Kosack

Dan Shor
A great teacher encourages.

I would never have guessed that Billy the Kid would be one of my great mentors. There I sat in the movie theater sometime in the early 90's, watching the highly popular and much imitated teen comedy Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. And there, cavorting across the screen in a long coat and cowboy hat, twirling his six shooters and drawling sardonically was Billy the Kid. His real name was Dan Shor, he was a Hollywood actor, and one day, though neither of us could have guessed it, we would be friends.

Fast forward a dozen or so years.

I walk into Luminarias, a remarkable Mexican restuarant in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains outside of Los Angeles, and shake hands with Billy the Kid. He looks a little older--only a little though--and he seems to have lost the deep Western accent I remember, but he still has curly blond hair and that twinkle in his eye. We sit down and do lunch. I'm a Seventh-day Adventist missionary teacher with a crazy dream--I want to make a TV series. He's an accomplished actor, writer, and director who's done it all on stage, in television, and on the big screen. He's seen Hollywood glamour come and go, and he's willing to help. I'll be honest,at first I was more than a little intimidated, and Dan could easily have milked that starry-eyed awe for some easy ego-stroking. But he didn't. That's not how Dan is. He is down-to-earth, kind, unpretentious and most of all encouraging. At the end of lunch, I left him a copy of our pilot that had aired the previous fall in Saipan--and I'm sure he knew, once he saw it, how awful it was. But when I talked to him a few days later, he only had words of hope and encouragement. He made me believe, that it wasn't completely ludicrous for a novice director who couldn't tell a grip from a gaffer to create something of value.

Dan moved to Saipan a few months later and he become my mentor and friend. From Dan I learned much about acting, filmmaking, and writing. We worked together on the Journeys project until the money ran out. I helped out on a documentary he directed on the Battle of Saipan. And most recently I acted in pilot project of his, State of Liberty. I often felt stupid around Dan--he knew so much more than I did--but it was my own insecurity that made me feel that way, never his treatment of me. Dan was unfailing encouraging, always supportive, consistently made me believe I really could do it--I, too, could write, direct, and act.

The opportunities on Saipan finally dried up and Dan and his wife, Jie Hua (who he met here), packed up and moved back to the Mainland. I miss them both, but I'm sure one of these days we'll work together again. Who knows, maybe one day I'll walk into a theater somewhere, look at up the silver screen, and we'll both be there--our names rolling by in the credits. Me and Billy the Kid.

Øystein LaBianca
A great teacher changes the way you think

Dr. LaBianca is a Renaissance Man. He's an archealogist, anthropologist, a university professor. He's as comfortable among the ancient ruins of Machu Pichu or Tell Hesban as he is cradling a bass violin on the stage of the Howard Performing Arts Center as he is walking the ivory tower halls of academia spearheading some new campus initiative. The man is--and has long been--my inspiriation.

My first encounter with Dr. LaBianca was when I was a student in his Cultural Anthropology class in the spring of 1994. That class probably had the greatest single impact of any class I have ever taken before or since. It completely changed the way I looked at the world. As Dr. LaBianca opened up to us the fascinting worlds of the Hutterites in North America and the Yanomamis of the Amazon, my view of people, culture and life iself, expanded and changed forever. I would be lucky enough to work for and with Dr. LaBianca as a research assistant later in my college career and also right after I finished my degree. I found him to be a gracious, generous, humble, and deeply spiritual man. I guess I'd always thought that to be an academic heavyweight you had to be a bit of a snob, and certainly too smart for simple things like faith. Dr. LaBianca succeeded in changing my thinking again. I haven't seen Dr. LaBianca in years--but I'm sure he's out there changing the lives of a new generation of college kids. I know one day our paths will cross again, and we'll sit down and have a great chat. I know we'll talk about something great and deep and important, and I know that I'll leave that conversation thinking a little differently, seeing just a bit more of the world than I saw before.

Edwin Hernandez
A great teacher believes in you.

Everyone needs a teacher who believes in them. And by that I don't mean that general "I believe all kids have potential"--though that is vital too. I mean a teacher who believes in that one specific student. A teacher who can look a kid in the eye and I say in complete sincerity and utter belief: "I know you can do it." Dr. Hernandez was that teacher for me. I worked for "Ed" as he was affectionately known for five years as a research assistant at Andrews University. At that time Dr. Hernandez was a professor of sociology in the Behavioral Sciences Department (hands down, the best place I ever worked, by the way). My job was to assist with his various research projects, the largest of which was a massive long range study of the attitudes, views, behaviors, and mores of Latino Christians. I did everything from data entry to research work to co-authoring with Dr. Hernandez on that project. During those years working together, Dr. Hernandez always made it clear that he believed I could do great things. He dreamed of me making my name in the rarified air of academia. He envisioned me earning a PhD and publishing some groundbreaking research in the social sciences. He believed I had talent, that I had a gift, that I could make a difference. You can't imagine what that means to a college undergrad trying to find his way in the world. Even though I chose not to pursue a career in research, the fact that Ed believed I could meant the world to me.

I have a feeling Dr. Hernandez was a little disappointed when I decided to go into elementary education instead of academia. I hope he knows why I made that decision though. I just wanted to do for kids what he did for me.

Paul Viar
A great teacher has high standards and high expectations.

He was a legend. His 7:30 A.M. sophomore Biology class was known to strike fear into the hearts of even the sharpest student. He taught the class like it was college (and it wasn't even AP!). His tests put the SAT to shame (and they were that important). Late work was as good as no work (and for Viar, work was late when he reached the door of his office at the back of the room after having passed through the rows picking up the assignments. I distinctly remember racing to the back of the room and blocking the door to his office so I could give him my work before it was late and worthless). Mr. Viar was tough. He had high standards. High expectations. He was no nonsense. He didn't play around. You either figured that out quickly or you ended up with a D- (as I did at the end of the first semester of biology after a school career of mostly easy A's ). By senior year Anatomoy & Physiology, Mr. Viar would ease off a little a bit, but by then his standards of performance were habit for his students. In my freshman year in college, when I was breezing through college A & P while the rest of the my classmates were floundering, I wrote a letter of thanks to Mr. Viar for insisting I build the study habits, work ethic, and knowledge base that enabled me to succeed. Even then I couldn't have known how his influence would continue to extend over my life.

You see, I became a teacher as well, and Mr. Viar became my model for what it is to be a good teacher. From my first teaching gig as a student missionary in Chuuk until now, more than a dozen years later, I have always asked myself: "What would Mr. Viar do?" These days I've managed to develop a repuation of my own as a teacher who means business. I think I owe Mr. Viar another letter!

Wanda Hopkins
A great teacher loves.

To listen to Mrs. Hopkins read Edgar Allan Poe's "The Bells", was to be transported. This gentle, happy teacher would transform. At first she was quiet, lyrical, lulling. But her delivery would subtly shift darker, deeper, and she'd creep up on you, her voice rising wild and passionate with the poem, until she was verbally grabbing you by the lapels and making you hear the tolling of the bells, bells, bells, bells, BELLS!!!

And then the poem would be over, and she'd smile her familiar smile and say something along the lines of "Now wasn't that nice."

Mrs. Hopkins is my other model for the kind of teacher I want to be. All that was true of Viar was true for her as well, but different things stand out about her in my memory.

In high school, Mrs. Hopkins was famous for her little catchphrases, but the funny thing is right now, I can't think of a single one. What makes her memorable to me wasn't those funny little one-liners. It was her love. Mrs. Hopkins inspired me by her love for English and her love for each of us. You didn't feel like Mrs. Hopkins loved you more than the others. You felt that Mrs. Hopkins loved us all the same. I try to teach like Mrs Hopkins--with love. Love for my subjects, and most of all, love for my kids. And when I read "The Bells", I do my best Hopkins imitation and hope my passion comes across to my students the ways hers did to me.

Rex & Clarie Kosack
Great teachers set a great example.

There's not too many people out there with whom you can discuss your marriage. For most people, marriage--at least the public version of it--is a show. You may be fighting tooth & nail in the car on the way to church, but when you get out of the car, you paste on your smiles and if anybody asks, things are always "great." What happens behind closed doors, nobody knows. But wouldn't it be great if there were marriage mentors--people who would be willing to open those closed doors at least halfway and let you get a glimpse of the nuts and bolts of a working marriage? Wouldn't it be great if you could open your own doors a little bit and show your own work-in-progress, and gain a few insights from those a little older and a lot wiser?

Well, Barbara and I were lucky to find just that in the Marriage Encounter community in general, and in the friendship of Rex and Clarie Kosack in particular. After attending our Marriage Encounter Weekend in the fall of 2003, we went through a series of evening meetings with Kosacks and several other couples called "Steps Along the Journey" where we learned more about the principles of successful marriage. We did "Steps" and the second series "Steeper Steps" twice with the Kosacks, the second time co-faciliating with them so that we could eventually lead our own group. Rex and Clarie were both remarkably candid and courageous in opening up and sharing how they make their marriage work. These are brilliant, beautiful, charismatic people who are very accomplished in their professional and personal lives. They would be intimdating, ordinarily, the sort of people you'd feel you needed to impress, except that they are so genuinely kind, so disarmingly honest about their own weaknesses, so deeply interested in you, and so humble in their brilliance that you can't help but feel safe and at ease with them.

Rex and Clarie have had the courage to be role models, to set an example for other couples. They've been willing to pull away the veil we all wear and share their struggles and successes so we could learn from them. As we led our own "Steps" group, Rex and Clarie were in our thoughts and hearts. They always are.


yolland said...

As a fellow teacher, I think this was probably my favorite installment of this series.

I found it interesting that as an elementary ed teacher, you named a couple college professors as prime influences in this category. While I've certainly had some professors I'd see as role models of scholarship, my main inspiration as a teacher has always been my high school senior year English teacher, Mrs. Lupkiewitz. That was during a time when I'd basically retreated into humiliated defeat after moving from the decidedly noncompetitive Itta Bena school system, where I'd sailed through without doing much work (which I'd naively always credited to my outstanding intellect), to a top NYC private school with kids who'd attended such schools their whole lives and were effectively several years ahead of me in most subjects. Now I was just about the slowest student in the class. If it weren't for Mrs. L., I think I might well have decided that clearly I wasn't advanced degree material after all, and maybe a 2-year business degree or something like that was my best bet after graduation. Mrs. L. spent many hours working one-on-one with me during lunch or after class, going over first drafts of my papers to ensure that what I finally handed in would have some structure to it, loaning me writing manuals covering skills I in truth should have learned years before and discussing them with me, and coming up with alternative presentation and research paper topics just for me (especially on Southern literature...I think because that was the one thing I knew more about than my classmates, so she knew it'd be an ego-booster). But more important than all the skill-building stuff was the message she conveyed throughout that she really believed in me...that my ideas and insights and potential WERE worth the struggle to learn to articulate them better; that I had something special to offer, and WASN'T crazy to hope I might someday have a place in the academic world.

Especially as a public college professor, her example continues to inspire me every day, because now I have so many students myself who are essentially where I was back then--bright and full of ideas and potential, but lacking, sometimes sorely, in the skills needed to develop and articulate and refine those ideas. I'm pretty much notorious for the intense emphasis I put on writing and small-group discussion skills in my classes, especially the lower-level major cores/campuswide electives, and much of that is due to her example. I certainly appreciate the many wonderful students who DO arrive fully prepared to write and discuss at college level or above, but there will always be a special place in my heart for the ones whose backgrounds have left them hungering for that mastery rather than able to take it for granted. True, I have it easier than Mrs. L. did with me--my students have at least already been through Freshman Comp bootcamp (and let me tell you, the sadly underpaid and undervalued "lecturers" and "adjunct assistants" who teach that are the REAL heroes of the academic world). And I know most of them won't go on to work or study in my field, and will forget most of the subject matter completely within a few years. But if I've managed to at least play some role in enabling the ones who needed it most to learn to develop, organize, and present their ideas on paper and face-to-face as well as those ideas deserve, then it's all worth it, because that's something that will be useful to them in so many ways no matter what they go on to do with their lives.

P.S. We miss you around FYM...but I'm sure the added sleeping time is worth it!

Bev said...

Enjoyed reading about the teachers that changed and inspired you to go into your profession. You're doing a great job with your students and the SDA school. Especially with Real Christian Theater! Keep up the great work Sean!

skanny17 said...

Thank you so much for sending along my information to my old friend Dan Shor. I just noticed that you are a Seventh Day Adventist. I thought you would be interested to know my last name is Fagal and my husband's father's cousin was William Fagal of Faith For Today. Also Harold Fagal is a minister in California, his wife is Ruth. I thought you might find a little interesting connection here. We are not Seventh Day Adventists, however. Best Regards and what a cute son you have. Love him a lot, they grow too fast.