VanHaren column: Words taken to heart - 'A teacher affects eternity'

By: 

Roger VanHaren

I was a teacher for 37 years. I’ve read that teaching is the noblest profession. I’m not so sure about that. But I do know that, for me, it was very rewarding.

I sometimes get the impression that for many people, their work is a means to an end. They work for a paycheck in order to live their lives. There’s no real joy in their work. But those who are called to teach have a true vocation. To those with whom teachers interact most during their workdays – the students – a teacher is not an employee but a friend, a mentor and a guide to the world.

A few years ago, I got to play the part of Morrie Schwartz in the very touching play “Tuesdays with Morrie,” by Mitch Albom. In preparing to play the role, I read Albom’s book upon which the play was based. In the interviews Albom recorded, Schwartz often spoke of his role as a teacher. He thought that teaching and loving are kind of the same; both can make students better people.

Schwartz thought that the teacher’s role was to be responsible for giving people the right principles. What a teacher says can affect generations and help people live the way that they should. At one point he quotes Henry Adams: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

Every school day for 24 years, I walked past a bronze plaque on the wall of the academic building at Wayland that proclaimed that quote. I read it every time I passed it; it became ingrained in my psyche. I convinced myself that I would be a part (no matter how small) of the success of my students whether they became teachers like me, or doctors, nurses, dentists, lawyers or just everyday workers. And I taught long enough to see some of the fruits of my labors.

Money can’t buy everything. The “joy” that teachers feel in knowing that their pupils turned into productive and responsible citizens is incomparable … it’s the reward of being a teacher.

Last week, I got a phone call from a former student whom I had not seen since he left my class in 1963. He was in town and wanted to know if we could meet for breakfast. He said that this was only the second time he’d returned to Beaver Dam in those 55 years, and that he wanted to talk to me because he remembered my class and wanted to thank me for my part in his education. How cool is that?

So we met and talked for a couple of hours. I learned about his life, his family and his successful career. It was a wonderful, warm reconnection, and I felt a great feeling of reward to know that he’d been successful in his chosen field and that he remembered me enough to get in touch after all these years.

A simple “hello” or a plain greeting from former pupils whom I meet at the grocery store or at Fleet Farm or wherever always warms my heart. Some of my former students are now in their late sixties or early seventies, and they still call me “Mr. VanHaren.” That simple gesture of respect makes all the hard work I put in for all those years seem worth the effort.

Another advantage of being a teacher is that you get to meet colleagues with a passion for teaching equal to yours who will become friends for life. Most of my closest friends are teachers. We still consider ourselves teachers even though we have been retired for many years. Teaching became our lives– it was not merely a job. It was a vocation, and we wouldn’t change it for the world.

Contact Roger VanHaren at rjmavh@gmail.com.