Life and Learning Happen Most in the Margins

Last month as I was walking across the UNLV campus one afternoon, a former high school student of mine crossed my path and stopped to chat.  She got excited and said she was happy to see me because she wanted to thank me.

For some amazing lesson we’d once had in class?  No.  That Spring I had been doing some decluttering, and had brought several boxes of old books to class.  I told the students to just take what they wanted.

She took a few books and promptly forgot them in some hidden corner of her room.  She found them over this last summer and read them.  One in particular became her favorite book, an energizing window into a great new branch of literacy for her.

The book was W. Sommerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, by the way.  It’s one of my favorites, too, and we talked about it for a while.

Funny how often the biggest effects we have on people’s lives are from the little extra things we do.

A few years ago, my wife and I went to see an exhibit at a local art museum.  The docent turned out to be a former student from several years earlier.  We all shared a pleasant minute catching up.  We reminisced about another victory for learning outside of class time, when I had introduced her to a new essay contest that she entered and won.

Later, as my wife and I were leaving, she caught up to us and offered  us two free passes for our next visit.  That was no small gift, and I thanked her profusely.

She said it was fine.  “You were one of the few teachers who really made a difference,” she said.

Oh, how any teacher longs to hear words like that!

I try to have quality classes, but time and again it seems like the things that make the most lasting, positive difference are the ones that go outside the ritualized routine.

Just last week I read a blog post by yet another former student, who retold an analogy I had made in class nearly a decade before.  Wow.  Was it something that tied in to what we had been doing in class that day?  Not at all.  It was one of my patented random tangents, but one that made a point about learning in general, a point that clearly stuck.

Perhaps I should go off script more often.  Maybe we all should. Surely this is as true of life as it is of the classroom.


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