Teacher Was One Of The People Who Changed My Life


I have a confession, Johnny. I am not just me; I am a lot of people rolled up into one. Oh, I started out as plain old me, and have no doubt retained some of the original, so I accept blame for any bad results of the last 80 years. But the good stuff? Sorry. Credit goes elsewhere. I’m not kidding. I am a composite creature, bits and pieces of many others, a living patchwork quilt.

I suppose that must be true of everyone so I don’t feel the least bit unique. I just feel lucky to have met the right people. As I look back over my life it’s like standing between two mirrors and seeing a long line of faces stretching off into the distance. The difference is that instead of seeing my own face, I see the faces of people I owe a lot to.

The most important of all those faces is obvious to anyone who has read this column over the years. I’ve talked about her so many times before there isn’t much left to say except that without my beloved wife my life would have been nothing. She is my life, my world, my everything, my Lolly.

Nor will I burden you with all the things that Mom and my three older brothers contributed to whatever is worthwhile in me. None of us grow up in a vacuum. We all have family, and we all owe a lot to them. Since I’ve been lucky enough to have had a chance to tell you a little about mine, I’ll let that do for now so that I can get to a worker of miracles.

I met him in my sophomore year in high school. His name was Dan Fielding. He did something most people would call impossible; he taught 15-year-olds to enjoy reading and writing. Even today, after more than 40 years in education, I stand in awe of the man.

At first, our sophomore year in Mr. Fielding’s class was not too different from what we had seen in nine years of school. But as the days went by we found ourselves looking forward to fifth period, the first period in the afternoon each day. Fifth period came right after lunch and a main topic of conversation almost every day in lunch was what we might be doing in Dan Fielding’s class.

Don’t get me wrong, Dan Fielding was not one of those showy, do-something-for-its-own-sake, teachers. He was about as orthodox in his teaching as anyone I have ever seen. It wasn’t his teaching that made Dan Fielding different; it was Dan Fielding himself. He was — how shall I put it? — so doggone human! We all agreed that he was the first teacher we had ever had who made us feel like equals. And he didn’t do it by getting down on our level; he did it by lifting us up to his. He treated us like we had brains; he let us reason things out for ourselves.

You see, Dan Fielding never said, “I speak truth, children! This is the way the world is; memorize it!”

Other teachers may not say that either, but they might as well. They present information as absolute. They treat the world as a finished product. Other English teachers had taught us “all about grammar,” with the result that we knew almost nothing about it. But Dan Fielding did something very different.

The best example I can give you of what he did was to tell you a little bit about the day I learned to use commas. We were writing themes in class and a girl asked him whether or not to put a comma somewhere in a sentence. Instead of just telling her yes or no, Dan Fielding stopped the class and said, “OK, let’s have some fun. Let’s see if we can figure out what commas are for.”

He wrote the sentence the girl had asked about up on the blackboard, and we began to talk about it. Twenty minutes later he had covered every conceivable reason for using a comma, and he had done it by asking us questions like, “Well, why would we want a comma here? Suppose we left it out, what would happen? How about this comma; could we throw it out?” 

You see what he did? He didn’t quote rules at us. He let us figure them out for ourselves. In that 20 minutes of one class day, Dan Fielding did more than teach me how to sprinkle commas across a page; he taught me how to teach. And for the many years I spent teaching in military and civilian life I never once quoted rules, or laws, or facts at people; I let them discover them on their own — with a little sneaky help from me, of course.

Dan Fielding. What a man! What a teacher!

What a rare piece of luck that I was in his class.


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