I don’t know how schoolteachers manage to do what they do, and do it as well as they do, given the obstacles tossed in their way by politicians, bureaucrats, special-interest groups, ideologues, social experimenters and assorted other navel-gazers — none of whom could carry their book bag. They sure don’t do it for the financial reward. That, we save for semi-articulate professional athletes and Hollywood liberals who earn obscene amounts of money pretending to be someone else.
A teacher’s reward comes from the impact they have on young lives and the impact young lives can have on them.
I was reminded of that fact last week when I heard from Mary Niedrach, who gently rapped my knuckles after reading my column on the names we are giving our kids these days. Ms. Niedrach is a kindergarten teacher at Berry College Elementary School in Rome, who took issue with my poking fun at the name Sebastian. It turns out that she had a special young man named Sebastian in her class this year.
Ms. Niedrach wrote me to say, "I love your column and read it faithfully. You have a way of gently making us see the truth while diffusing the anger that so many seem to have these days. Your humor is right up my alley, and I often laugh out loud at something you have written." (C’mon. You are making me blush.)
However, she said, "I’ll have to object to your editorial ‘What’s in a name?’ You had me right up until you threw the name Sebastian under the bus." (Uh-oh! I think I’m about to get my knuckles rapped.)
"I have been a teacher for 36 years. I have seen hundreds of names and taught each and every one of these children to write these names as well as to add and subtract and to read and to write. But this past year, for the first time ever, I had a Sebastian.
"Sebastian White is an angel on this Earth. He is kind, loving and brings joy to every person he comes across. He loves all people and animals, and he has a sixth sense of anyone who is hurt or even discouraged. He listens when people talk and asks intelligent questions. This child has an old soul.
"He asks deep questions like, ‘Does God love people all the time?’ and, ‘If blood leaks out of your finger will you go flat like a balloon?’
"I love this child like no other. Unfortunately, he did not know the alphabet when he started my class as the others did. It is one of my requirements for entry. I accepted him anyway. I am not sure why. He did an amazing job in kindergarten, but is not quite ready for first grade.
"Sometimes, I tell my class that I will choose a ‘helper’ to stay back with me next year. They vie for this honor. On the last day of school, we played a game. Sebastian won. The prize was a golden trophy engraved ‘The Chosen One — Sebastian White.’
"There were tears. But not from me or Sebastian."
Ms. Niedrach ended her note with an admonition, "So take my sweet boy’s name off your list." No sooner said than done, but I had to call Mary Niedrach to find out what is so special about Sebastian White.
"He is the most wonderful child I have ever known," she told me. "When he walks in the room, the whole room lights up. If he thinks someone needs a hug, he will hug them. When he is in the lunchroom, he thanks all the workers, even if he brought his lunch that day." Sebastian White’s father is a Rome police officer and his mother works in the local court system, but Ms. Niedrach is convinced the young man was "dropped from heaven."
So that brings me back around to the rewards of teaching. I suspect young Sebastian White will forever remember Mary Niedrach’s influence on his life. Certainly, Ms. Niedrach will never forget how this precocious 6-year-old brought so much joy to her own life. As for the rest of us, we are reminded once again why teachers do what they do.
And to think: We might not have known of this love story between a devoted teacher and an exceptional young man had I not written a wiseacre column joking about the name Sebastian and gotten my knuckles rapped for it. Sometimes I’m right, even when I am wrong.