I remember his soft voice.
The way he would lean over my desk and point out what I was doing wrong in a way that never felt judgmental or harsh. Just a gentle reminder that I was on a longer journey and this was a step on the path.
I never thought I’d like a math teacher until I met him.
Since elementary school, I was pretty sure I would never like math again, period.
But this year, this year it was different.
He was such a good person. So calm, so reassuring.
And even though I had this problem with not doing homework, he never got upset, never wondered out loud, “Why are you wasting your potential?”
No, he just calmly moved forward, still encouraging.
And slowly, slowly, I would start to do my homework. I started to listen in class, excited to learn about geometry, about shapes and equations and all the rest.
For the first time in my life, I loved math.
And then he told us he needed to leave for a bit. Chemotherapy, he said.
He was the first person I ever knew with cancer. And so I guess that’s why I was surprised to find out about it, even though he was bald and he kept having sick day
He left for a few weeks or a month or a few months… I don’t remember.
I remember how he came back. And he was weaker, but he was also gentler. Like he had learned something.
I wondered why a person would want to go to work when they were so sick. But it became pretty clear why as he was in there.
He loved it. He loved teaching us. And we all loved him, it wasn’t just me. We were enamored with him, and it wasn’t some sympathetic thing because he was sick. We adored the way he taught us, we adored how positive he was. All of us loved math for those months that he taught us.
And then they told us he died.
I went to his funeral. It was the first funeral I ever went to. A few other students went too.
Person after person got up and told stories from his life. It was beautiful, because they weren’t making things up, just saying “Oh, he was so wonderful.” They told those stories that just proved what a good person he was. How he helped those around him. How he touched the people he knew.
They wondered what sense there was in a person who never smoked a day in his life, who exercised every day, who did all the right things, should get lung cancer.
I cried and cried as the stories started. I cried harder when they wondered. I had never cried for another person before. He was still teaching me.
That funeral, my crying… it’s all seared in my mind. Seared because of what a wonderful man he was, how he touched my life for a brief moment…
But it also mattered to me throughout my life because it showed me what it means to be a teacher. The power of being in a role of guidance.
I had developed an early hate for teachers. When I was young, I was a bit rebellious, a bit of a trouble maker.
And some of my teachers didn’t take well to it.
I remember the one that grabbed me by the ear, stuck her nails in, so I yelped in pain, and told me that it was time I started behaving. That was in third grade. This person was my teacher for an entire year.
What’s interesting is that I have only vague memories of the year after that. But I remember hating my fourth grade teacher with an intense venom. A deep, personal hurt. But no memory comes to mind of why.
I remember how throughout my entire primary school education, I hated writing. I loved reading, but I hated writing.
It was only when I went to college, and I thought that I should try out a creative writing class for the heck of it, had a wonderful teacher, and grew from there, that I realized that this was what I wanted to do with my life.
I just never associated writing with joy. With meaning. Or myself. Because no teacher had taught me that joy could come from writing. Just humdrum obedience.
In high school, for a brief glimmer of time, I encountered the truest teacher of my life. A person who could get this future English major to love math. To reveal the innate curiosity and joy of learning in us all.
And when I think of that, what he accomplished, how huge that was to me… and I compare it to the others… to the ones who pinched, attacked, hurt… the ones who had lost the joy of their jobs long ago… the ones who were perhaps never meant to be teachers in the first place… and I remember the effect they had, just as powerful as my wonderful teachers, but the opposite way…
I realize the power of a teacher. The power of a person who has been entrusted to lead others in growth and learning. The power to literally help create or destroy a person. Or at least, a part of a person. The part that is alive, curious, and creative.
Elad Nehorai is a writer living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Five years ago, he became a religious Jew in the Chabad Hassidic community and has since written about his experience extensively, most recently in his blog Pop Chassid. You can find him on Twitter as @PopChassid and Facebook.
This article was originally published on Pop Chassid.