A tribute to teachers – wherever they are found

FOR LONG-AGO STUDENTS who still feel the tug of the classroom every September, this week marks an annual ritual of living vicariously.

It's a time when back-to-school ads spur memories of pristine notebooks and freshly sharpened pencils. It's a week when a glimpse of a mother and young child walking hand in hand to school can produce a lump in the throat of a passing parent, who knows firsthand how many hopes accompany that walk.

It's also a time when a former student's thoughts can fill with memories of teachers who made lasting impressions.

There's the first-grade teacher whose enthusiasm for Dick and Jane and Spot helped to instill a lifelong love of reading. The seventh-grade science teacher who posted a memorable sign under his clock stressing the importance of paying attention: "Time will pass. Will you?" And the high school journalism teacher whose zeal for newspapering propelled several students into careers in that field.

If only these and other teachers knew how far-reaching their influence has been.

Not all teachers are found in classrooms, of course. September is also a good time to honor all the unofficial teachers everywhere who may not even be aware of the inspiration they impart. Novelist Margaret Atwood calls them "inadvertent teachers."

"Teacher" and "mentor" are conscious, deliberate roles. But an inadvertent teacher can be anyone – a friend, a boss, a casual acquaintance, a relative, a stranger. So unassuming is their instruction that it may take years or decades before a recipient realizes the lasting import of the gifts they bestowed.

I think of a cousin of my mother's whose love of nature included a particular fondness for wildflowers. Even today, when I walk through woods and meadows, her long-ago voice, exclaiming over lady slippers, yarrow, and jack-in-the-pulpit, brightens the path.

In college, a friend with an impressive knowledge of classical music forever enriched my appreciation for Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" and Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique." Similarly, a boss's warm thanks during my first summer job bolstered my fledgling workplace confidence.

The gift of nature. The gift of music. The gift of reassurance. Everyone's list of intangible treasures is different – and valuable.

Some of the best inadvertent teachers are parents. Beyond all the values, manners, and skills parents deliberately set out to teach, they pass along other important messages. These can be encoded in a tone of voice, an approving smile, even the reflexive arch of an eyebrow.

Children, too, serve as inadvertent teachers. What parents haven't learned humility, patience, and courage from their offspring? Even a teenager's advice to "lighten up" can be a reminder to reorder priorities – and laugh.

These unwitting gifts prompt an appreciative recipient to ask: What can I give to someone? A word of encouragement, a compliment, a skill, an idea that might open new doors?

Thanking others for intangibles they didn't even know they'd given is often impossible. But I sometimes think of my grandmother's wise response whenever we fretted that we would never be able to repay her many acts of generosity.

"Pass it on," she would say simply.

That's good advice any time. But it shines with particular meaning in September, when the back-to-school air is filled with hope and rich possibilities.

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