A Dangerous Teacher

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware.
—Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Too often we don’t fully appreciate the people in our lives that shape who and what we become. We are too busy or too occupied with the daily grind, and sometimes we miss the stuff that really matters. All of us have had teachers who in the moment were too tough, too demanding, or maybe too soft. The good ones are best evaluated in a rearview mirror. They are hard to recognize in the present.

Teachers are dangerous people. At least the good ones are. They start fires in the dry and tender imaginations of young people. Then they stand back, pour on the coals, and watch it burn, sometimes from a distance. On rare occasions you meet one of these educators. If you’re really lucky, you have one for a teacher. In either case, you are never the same.

I met one. Her name was Lorraine Jasso. She was a great teacher, a real pyromaniac around children. Whether it was conjugating Spanish verbs or telling her class about what happened the night before, she lit up the room. The heat and light produced from deep in her own blazing soul gave off enough energy to spark the imagination of children and even crusty old professors watching her work.

I’ve seen her stalk a classroom in McMinn County High School looking for smoldering embers in the soft brains of students. The big ol’ country boys in the back of the room pretended not to be interested. They were way too cool. But clearly, they were no match for this professional fire starter. In short order, even those on the fringes were caught up in the frenetic activity. Then gently, Lorraine fanned sparks. When the bell rang, the kids found it difficult to leave. Curiously, there was the faint smell of something burning.

She politely herded them out the door and welcomed a new group. I got the feeling that those coming and going in this teacher’s class would never forget it. Sure they may not remember the past participle of the Spanish verb for “go” next week, but I promise, like me, they’ll never forget Mrs. Jasso. The fires started in her Spanish class, like those in a few other hot spots that campus, will burn right through the artificial walls hemming in the human imagination. On the other side are wide-open spaces. As we all know, an imagination on the loose is a very dangerous thing.

What most of these students didn’t know that crisp fall morning was that Mrs. Jasso was suffering from stage IV breast cancer that would take her life before the year was out.  She had nothing to lose. That Tuesday morning mattered.

As director of our graduate program in education, I’ve seen a few truly unforgettable teachers, and I have tried in vain to assess them in the present. My puny attempt to evaluate their performance in neat little check boxes has been futile. Once in a while, about the only appropriate response to a lesson like the one I watched Lorraine offer that day was to slip off my shoes.

With love and respect,
Gary L. Riggins

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