Today my Dad would have turned 74.
I had to go back and check the math. It couldn’t have really been four years ago that I got that phone call from my brother at 5 am and collapsed on the back porch uttering sounds of sorrow that until that moment I had no idea my body was capable of making.
With that memory, I can still feel the old splintered wood against my face as I cried there, emptying myself of every ounce of grief only to take a breath and feel myself fill back up.
You know, my Dad was right about a lot of things, but even he was wrong about some things.
Once, when I was going through some hard times at the school where I was teaching, I called him as I often did to have a heart-to-heart. My ear would get red and sweaty at the end of one of our long conversations. I talk to my mother once a day, well sometimes five times, but with my Dad it was different. When we did talk, we talked.
Well, I don’t even remember why I was so stressed about work at the time, but his advice was not to worry about it. He said as much as it may seem that you are irreplaceable at work, you aren’t. Sure you may be great at your job, but if you drop dead tomorrow, you better believe that they will have someone else in there to take your place.
His words stuck with me.
I remembered them when I invited my colleagues to come to a board meeting to hear my passionate resignation speech and only a handful showed up. I remembered them when I packed my classroom and nobody wanted to take my binders full of ideas from 8 years of teaching 7th grade English with creativity, heart, and soul. I remembered when no one wanted my invention project packet that had become my legacy. I remembered when no one had any use for my witch’s cauldron that I would use for various games or for the stacks of charts that I made the old school way with chart paper and colorful markers (before and after Powerpoint and SmartBoards became a staple).
One day someone will find a book of mine, labeled “Vaccaro” in obnoxious red Sharpie ink in the dusty corner of the book room and not know who that is and toss it in the trash. In a lot of ways, he was right. I have only been gone from my school for two years and so much has already faded.
But, a teacher is not your typical kind of worker that comes and goes and the company keeps on functioning as it always did.
You see my Dad is missed, though his replacement probably doesn’t know his name or what it still means to so many of his former students and colleagues. For as education becomes more and more results based, so much is being lost. You can replace a body, but you can’t replace the heart and soul that he brought to school every day and poured into his students.
This is not to say that today’s generation of teachers doesn’t care or have heart and soul. But, what I mean is that there is no longer a sense of reverence for those who came before. The policymakers from the state level down to the local school boards have lost a sense of what it really means to teach. They don’t understand that there isn’t a test, spreadsheet, or rubric that can capture the value of a true teacher nor assess the quality of learning that is being delivered. They don’t know that the kids need their physical education teacher down on the floor playing Duck, Duck, Goose with them (like my Dad did) a lot more than they need to take a benchmark to determine the value of that teacher.
The policymakers think that new ways are better than old ways and that the more technology the better, because it makes our lives easier. But have they really gotten easier? I am pretty sure that my Dad wouldn’t think so. Their new ways have done nothing but drive up spending on curriculum, professional development, and technology while devaluing the human capital right before their eyes in their teachers.
So, Happy Birthday, Daddy!
I hope that you have a cake where you are and that before you blow out those 74 candles, that you make a wish.
Wish that schools, administrators, school boards, and government officials can learn to do more than just replace and instead honor the value of those who came before and those who are there now trying to survive during a difficult time to teach, one of the most important professions in the world.
My Dad’s smile lives on in the hearts of so many of his students from over 40 years of teaching and that is irreplaceable.
I should know, because it lives on in mine.