Saturday, April 11, 2015

What Counts in Education and Why

My title here alludes to a quip by, Einstein, I believe:  "Not everything that matters can be counted; not everything that can be counted matters."

I've been thinking a lot about my former teachers lately.  Maybe it was the quip that my colleague at the High School made about my corduroy sports coat and our former German teacher, Gordon.  Or maybe it was this blog post I found today.  Regardless, those thoughts led to me find the eulogy I wrote for my good friend Ron T., my former Chemistry teacher in HS.  I wanted to post the eulogy again because I've been thinking so much about what matters, what counts, and how we can ever freaking know such information with any accuracy.

Off and on since I graduated HS back in 1986, I would stop in to see  Ron.  I used to drop by his house on my way to and from my father’s, or, more recently, about once or twice a year my family and I would try to get to see Ron and just talk and enjoy some of the simple food he would make with vegetables from his garden.  No matter when I would stop by, he'd always great me with a smile and welcomed look of surprise.  "Well,  Gary..."  I can't think of any time, not even in class, when it wasn't so.  His demeanor rarely changed and you always had a sense that he felt it a pleasure to have you visit.  He was, more than anything, a genuine spirit, unassuming in his countenance and personality, who taught his students as much by what he did as by what he said.

One summer, before I was married, Rob H. and I helped Ron paint the clapboard siding of a barn and twin home he owned as a rental property in East Greenville.  High on the ladders, all of us working side-by-side, Ron would tell stories and his gentle humor made the days pass quickly.  As we grew tired, we would take a break, and Ron would produce his lunch, a lettuce sandwich--just two pieces of pumpernickel bread with some fresh lettuce between the slices.  To two boys who grew up in the great consumer morass that was American culture of the 70s and 80s, you can imagine how we might have perceived his meal.  But, simple as his food choices were, there always existed some flavor up-front.  The caraway of the rye seeds in the pumpernickel, or the dill he mixed into a homemade soup he once served when Heather and I stopped by one night.   Truth be told, I have never met anyone whose appetite so closely matched his personality. 

Just so, Ron was a simple man, but never dull.  He filled his life with a love for his heritage and treasured nothing so much as sharing with people.  When we were still in HS, Ron invited some of us up to his home to view his Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas Putz, a unique collection of animals, buildings, and all manner of figurines which, when setup like a model train display, produced a fascinating landscape for the wonderment of children.  This collection was his from his childhood, and he kept it with the same precision and organization that guided everything he did in his life…so far as I could tell.  As he grew older, he donated his Christmas Putz to the Schwenkfelder Heritage society in Red Hill so that children would evermore be able to marvel at what children past used to occupy their play. 

Other times, I remember Ron inviting his students to make candy during the holidays.  Ron possessed a collection of molds into which, with the right guidance, we learned to pour a hot, colored, sugary mixture.  I believe we would add to this a lollypop stick and when the mixture cooled and the candy was removed, one held in her hand a miniature delight—a clear, yellow, green, or red sweet that shined like a Christmas light but tasted much better. 

My family and I visited Ron in late August of 2011, and then again in November after learning he had renal cancer.  He was tired, but his kind wit had not abandoned him.  We spoke of school, photography, and somewhat of his illness.  We knew the cancer had spread and that there might not be many more chances for us to visit, and so we made plans to visit with him on December 26th.  But my daughter had come down with a stomach virus.  I called Ron to reschedule but we were not able to get up to see him.  He suffered a setback on the Thursday before New Years and was never able to recover.

If this be eulogy, then let it be this--a eulogy that reminds us all of our teachers and of this important truth:  We can never tell where their influence stops.  Whether I remember how  to balance out an oxidation reduction reaction (if that’s even what you do with them) is not nearly so important in my life as that Ron T. cared…that, for the most part, all my teachers cared, that they shared their lives with me, and that I learned, whether intentionally or not, a good deal about how to be a decent, intelligent, and caring human being.