“What My Teachers Taught Me,” New Era, Sept. 1992, 6
“Tom,” said the high school English teacher, “how would you diagram this sentence?” All eyes turned to the back of the classroom where Tom was sleeping. The teacher raised her voice, slapped her yardstick against the chalkboard, and repeated, “Tom, what would you like to do with this sentence?” The young man lifted his head, blinked a time or two, and said sarcastically: “If I had my way, I would throw that sentence and all the others out the window.”
Members of the class laughed aloud. Most knew Tom and his aversion to school, books, teachers, and learning in general. It was no secret their classmate intended to drop out of school, and he was already a Church dropout. Many had heard Tom ridicule the need for formal education, especially the part which dealt with verbs, adjectives, and all that “stuff.”
Unfortunately, there is more than one Tom found among LDS youth. Too many Toms and Tammys squander precious learning experiences. In the end, they reap the bitter harvest of poorly developed skills, untapped abilities, limited social graces, and weak understandings of God and his holy purposes. Whether they realize it or not, they throw themselves out of the window of life when they turn their backs to education.
In my youth, I was taught by teachers who demonstrated an interest in me and exposed me to education in such a manner that thoughts of dropping out of school or church never entered my mind.
For example, Neal Jones, a science teacher, introduced me to the marvels of the universe. At the time when air travel was emerging, he invited his students to explore the possibilities of space travel and interplanetary communication.
In one intriguing discussion, we considered the prospects of flying to the stars and back. We calculated the distances and applied the rates of flight. We concluded that at 100 mph a pilot would grow old and die before reaching some of the heavenly bodies and returning to earth. None of us could foresee, as Mr. Jones could, the future wonders of rocket power, jet propulsion, and the like.
When Sputnik was launched, I thought of Mr. Jones’s classroom; when the moon landing occurred in 1969, I thought of Mr. Jones; and, when I learned of the Concorde reaching altitudes above 60,000 feet and speeds in excess of 1,000 miles per hour—I thought of Mr. Jones. He introduced me to the fascinating world of science and transfused in me a curiosity about the universe, and convinced me that “the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator” (Alma 30:44).
Another teacher bridged past and present. Sometimes as if by magic, he transported us into history. At other times, he projected us into the next generation, predicting future events with uncanny accuracy.
He acquainted us with world leaders. He placed maps before us and spoke of faraway places with strange-sounding names. He helped us understand and appreciate the special destiny of our own country.
Later, when I was drawn into a small segment of World War II, I thought of George Staples; when I served a mission in Palestine and Syria, I thought of Mr. Staples; and as I have traveled the world over for the Church I have thought of the inspiration Mr. Staples provided.
I am grateful for this teacher who broadened my horizons, who helped me develop a concern for all people of the earth. He helped me see the need to learn “of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, … and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms” (D&C 88:79).
Most of my teachers believed in work and advocated good work habits. But the one who made me appreciate this principle most was a custodian-teacher by the name of Thatcher Smith.
Thatcher understood how much my friends and I loved to play basketball. It would have been simple for him on Saturday mornings to throw us a key to the gym and rid himself of our pleadings. Instead he insisted we clean out the furnace, dump the cinders, and clean the showers in exchange for playing basketball. We were required to work for our play.
Thatcher’s “gym rats” over a period of years became championship teams. Those same young men, in the passage of time, have worked and earned degrees and achievements in a variety of businesses and professions. Most have gained full understanding of the “sweat-of-thy-brow” concept.
Still another teacher taught me that the ultimate discovery in growing up is the discovery of oneself, when one comes face-to-face with his own limitations and, simultaneously, has his eyes opened to his talents.
Ellis “Red” Wade helped me make this discovery. He tested my manual skills (and his patience) by having me construct a piano stool and hall tree in a year of shop work. I labored endlessly. Nothing would fit together or vaguely resemble the paper sketches. It was apparent that building things with my hands was not one of my endowments. When I took my handiwork home, Mother positioned my hall tree behind a door where it served a purpose without being seen. My dad, I think, used the piano stool in milking the cow.
Fortunately, Mr. Wade could see I possessed physical skills and coordination. He taught me to respect my body and to strive toward athletic goals. He, and later Coach Staples, transfused me with the desire to strive for excellence in various forms of competition. This was not done in a lopsided fashion. They were always advocates of balance between physical and mental pursuits. I thank them for helping me follow this inspired direction: “Let no man despise thy youth; … Neglect not the gift that is in thee … Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear to all” (1 Tim. 4:12, 14–15).
Recently, I was appalled to observe the television interview involving a high school graduate who could not add, subtract, multiply, or divide the simplest problems.
How very grateful I am that Mr. Lyle Asay taught me to think, calculate, and solve problems. He helped me to appreciate the words: “I applied mine heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom, and the reason of things” (Eccl. 7:25).
At the same time, my father-teacher taught me that family relationships and ties do not guarantee the highest grades. He refused to play favorites; he expected the most from the one he knew and loved best.
Whenever I hear the word grace, I think of Miss Melba Erickson, an English teacher. Miss Erickson was not only a beautiful and graceful lady, but she transmitted most effectively the “graces of life” through language study. She ushered her students into that fascinating world of words and books. In the process, she groomed our speech, refined our writing, and motivated us to “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people” (D&C 90:15).
It is a tragedy when young people fail to acquire the essential tools and graces of life through the traditional “R “s—reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic. For it is through these disciplines that one masters the ability to think and to respond. Moreover, there is an exactness and preciseness associated with these studies that places the finishing edge on our development. Remember, social tools and graces are learned—not inherited.
I was privileged to have other teachers in public schools, in church, and in seminary who helped me understand the wisdom of these words: “To be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Ne. 9:29). My teachers of religion were men and women who believed faith was a principle of action. They knew “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26), so they taught me to live in accord with the truths gained from my studies.
It is vital that young Latter-day Saints understand that “the glory of God is intelligence” (D&C 93:36). Such understanding will enable them to appreciate the liberating and enlightening role played by education and cause them to heed this divine counsel: “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118).
One who drops out of the Church or school and who throws learning out of the window never gets off the ground; he or she never gets launched in life. On the other hand, one who has faith and who learns to master sentence structure, who builds hall trees and engages in other forms of mental and physical activities, climbs to new heights of achievement, enjoys a fullness of life, and prepares for the eternities.