red-for-ed-v2My daughter and I dressed all in red today (and a little pink for me). It doesn’t really match. It’s a look cobbled together from what I could find digging through my closest. Apparently, I own a lot more black than most other colors. But I was determined because I’m devoted to supporting all the teachers out there by “wearing red for public ed(ucation).” Not familiar with this? Feel free to read up on it here.

In honor of this demonstration of support for the importance of public schools and their teachers, here’s a very personal story about how one public school teacher changed my life.

The Big Idea

It all started with my older sister…

No, she’s not a teacher. But I credit her for planting the seed of feminist thoughts in my brain. I’m not sure she’d call herself a feminist. However, for me, a major aspect of feminism is independence and my sister was never one to just follow the crowd. Although we didn’t get along well as kids, secretly I looked up to her and her independent, strong nature.

If my sister was the foundation for feminism, Mr. Bernard, my public high school government teacher, laid the bricks…

real heros.jpgMr. Bernard was a unique type of teacher that only comes around once in a person’s lifetime. I remember him as a large man who would move around the classroom, waving his arms demonstrably as he spoke. He had paper bubbles of crazy words I’d never heard of at the time like “zeitgeist” and “xenophobia” in huge lettering pasted on the walls. He hosted a weekly movie night where students watched an eclectic mix of films, such as Boyz n the Hood, Citizen Cane and Malcolm X. In high school, he spoke to us like adults, challenged us to ask difficult questions and showed us there is more than one way to think.

Mr. Bernard encouraged us to not just memorize facts but to think about the world and our place in it…

Mr. Bernard had several unique aspects to his curriculum. One assignment was to read a book and come in after school to talk to him about it. That was it, reading and talking about books. The only requirement was the book had to be something related to government or politics.

At the time, I wasn’t overly interested in either. I had feelings of outrage for the general terribleness in the world, but no real concept of how to turn those feelings into some sort of positive action. So I asked Mr. Bernard to pick a book for me. I’m not sure why he chose this particular book. I got good grades and I was a little feisty as a teenager. I probably would have kicked someone for telling me I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. (For the record, I don’t condone violence.) But I didn’t show much interest in the overall plight of women, I just was one. Maybe he sensed a nascent feminist hiding inside me that needed the spark of knowledge.

the-war-against-womenHe gave me a book and it changed my life…

Mr. Bernard chose The War Against Women by Marilyn French for me to read. I was always an avid reader. But this was like no book I’d read before. It opened my mind to the realities of being a woman. Hidden mores of society established to hold back women were uncovered with every turn of the page. Nameless feelings I’d had about prejudice or injustice were given names. Things I’d dismissed as “just being how things were” turned into things I realized I could fight to change. Immersed in the words of Ms. French, I discovered I was a feminist.

The genius of this assignment wasn’t just the book…

As I sat in a plastic chair to the side of Mr. Bernard’s desk, I’m pretty sure at first I didn’t know what to say about what I’d read. Although I would not have been categorized as someone who kept quiet, as a teen I also didn’t know how to speak up.

Honestly, I don’t really remember anything specific about our talk. I once heard a remark that some people think in colors instead of exact events. I think I’m this way. In my memory, the color of this conversation is a bright, exciting light blue, like a cloudless spring afternoon sky, the color of enlightenment. The mere act of discussing the concepts of feminism showed me it was OK to talk about these things. I could voice an opinion about real, important things and someone might actually listen.

At some point, during the conversation I must have found the words to express what I thought…

Artwork by FaeAnna

My thoughts on the book must have been at least slightly insightful because after that day Mr. Bernard didn’t just check a box in his grade book noting I’d completed the assignment and move on. He continued to talk to me about what I’d learned. He’d tell me about programs, protests, meetings, events and lectures where I could further my feminist education. He even sent me and another student to a panel in DC, where I asked a question about women’s rights, which was broadcast on C-SPAN. (That’s right, I’m totally famous because everyone watches C-SPAN and will also remember me from decades ago, right?)

This is what makes a special teacher…

And this experience, this teacher, changed my life. He taught me not just to accept but to think.

A special teacher doesn’t just stop teaching when the assignment is over. A special teacher makes you feel special, helps you realize your potential. Mr. Bernard made me realize I could make a difference in the world. And I was lucky enough to have been able to learn these lessons from him. They’re coming in handy during these scary times.

thank-a-teacherSo, today, I say thank you to all the great teachers out there. I wear red for you and for Mr. Bernard and for my friend and amazing teacher Janet and for every underappreciated teacher out there. I’ll wear red for you any day.