When I was younger and more radical in my views of life I used to believe wholeheartedly in that line from G.B. Shaw’s “Man and Superman” that goes “Those who can do, do; Those who can’t teach.” In fact this mantra accompanied me from the moment I heard it sometime in the tenth grade and well into my early thirties. Needless to say this kind of arrogant attitude towards teachers made me a nightmare of a student. I’m sure every teacher reading this has come across some smart ass kid who thinks he knows it all. Or maybe you were that smart ass kid. Or you sat next to one.
Teachers have it hard. Especially in this country. I don’t know how it is now but when I was growing up here in Israel we were thirty-five to forty pupils in each class. Half the time the teachers couldn’t remember our names. Unless we stood out for one reason or another. If we were disruptive they would remember us. If we were particularly bright they would remember us. If we were constantly failing, handing in papers late, absent they would remember us. However, most of us, myself included, were among the forgotten. We were average in our grades and intelligence of the subject, not particularly disruptive, not particularly tardy or frequently absent. We just were. We came to class on time. We took notes. We did our homework. We did the reading. We handed in our assignments on time. Sure we snuck a cigarette every once in a while behind the soccer field or played hooky and caught a movie at the old Rav Chen cinemas but by and large we cruised by on our mediocrity and remained absolutely anonymous.
Teachers have it hard. That’s worth repeating. Especially in this country. They are tragically underpaid and overworked. I can’t tell you how many burned out while I was in high school. How many left the classroom crying. And what kind of society do we live in anyway where a person who can kick a ball inside of a goal professionally makes more money than all of the teachers in the country put together? Those same teachers who we put in charge of educating our children?
Things we see from here we don’t see from there. When I was one in forty and totally left to my own devices I secretly clung to that Shaw line. I reminded myself of how successful I would one day be and how these worn out and jaded teachers, who taught instead of doing, would be nothing more than a speck in my rear view. How I was destined for greatness and how I would never, ever teach. I would do. So I began to assume a condescending air towards my teachers. As if, just by dreaming it, I had already become accomplished. I had, in my mind’s eye, become a doer and not a teacher. And those sad educators would be stuck, or so I imagined, teaching the same topic until they were forced to retire when they were in their sixties. They would have left no impact on society. They would be anonymous drones, forgotten in the annals of time. Unlike me, of course. I was destined for immortality. I would be Rimbaud, Melville and Salinger all rolled into one. I would be the greatest that ever lived.
But I was wrong. On so many levels. And I began to realize the flaws in my logic shortly after meeting one of those handful of teachers we all have met, that have left their impression on us for our entire lives: Avi Zimmerman, my tenth grade history teacher.
Avi was a Russian immigrant when such a thing wasn’t so common here. He spoke Hebrew with a slight accent and wore the same plaid button down shirt and tie every day. Nobody does that here. Nobody wears a tie. Not even high level executives. They sometimes wear crocs. But not Mr. Zimmerman. And of course we all made fun of him for wearing the same shirt and the same tie every day. But he was indifferent. He came to teach us about World War II, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt and the War of Independence that gave us our State of Israel. And if you wanted to learn you could listen. Or you could sit in the back and do whatever you wanted. Listen to your discman. Play your gameboy. Gossip. He wasn’t a disciplinarian. He was a history teacher.
He was thin with sunken eyes. He spoke so softly that you had to strain to hear him talk about Operation Barbarosa or the Battle of the Bulge. And I did. I listened. Religiously. I was always fascinated by history but there was something about this Mr. Zimmerman that made me want to learn. Even though he wasn’t like Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society. He wasn’t flashy and enthusiastic. He knew his material and that was enough. The material was the attraction. Not the teacher.
Towards the end of the year he told us about a city wide competition on the subject of Zionism. Every year he took a pupil with him to represent our school in the quiz. It was a great honor to be a part of this and it was a chance to boost your school’s pride. Were there any volunteers? I looked around. Nobody raised their hand. As his eyes scanned the room knowingly I looked at him and felt sorry for him. I did. Nobody was going to volunteer for this. He knew it. I knew it. I knew how it would play out. He would pick someone. They would come up with an excuse. Finally he would have to call parents and beg. It was demeaning and he was better than that, I thought. So even though I barely knew anything about Zionism I raised my hand. “Yes…” he said. “Remind me your name again?”
I studied for an entire month. I knew everything there was to know about Herzl, the Uganda proposal, the Balfour declaration, General Allenby, the Irgun. I could tell you everything about the 1939 White Papers pertaining to the British Mandate of Palestine. You name it. I was obsessed, though I could not for the life of me tell you why. I had gone from knowing next to nothing (I was an oleh, a new immigrant from the States and barely spoke the language) to an expert on the topic of Zionism.
The other twelve pupils I was competing against looked like they had been dragged kicking and screaming. They felt humiliated on that stage in front of all their classmates. I was nervous. Like an Olympic swimmer before a meet. I kept repeating dates and names. Trumpeldour. Arlozorov. The great Arab revolt of 1936. I saw Mr. Zimmerman out of the corner of my eye and he nodded his head as if to reassure me.
I won that Zionist quiz by a landslide. All my classmates cheered. It was the first time in my life that I had ever won anything. As the mayor of Holon handed me a certificate and a medal I saw Mr. Zimmerman smiling for the first time. “You’re the first pupil I’ve had in ten years that’s won the Zionist quiz, Jason. Good Job.” And he patted me on the shoulder. I can’t testify to it, as memory swirls with emotion in my head, but I actually remember him tearing up. Or maybe it was me.
Mr. Zimmerman will always be with me. He may have taught me something that day but my greatest teacher was and has always been my mom. She’s been an English teacher off and on for thirty years in the Israeli public school system. When I was growing up she would ask me to help her mark exams. But I had to do the reading first. And that’s how I became familiar with Arthur Miller, James Joyce, Flannery O’Connor and, of course, George Bernard Shaw. Through her eyes I saw how difficult it is to teach and how under-appreciated teachers are in our society. I felt for her every time she came home crying. I felt for her every time a student let her down. But I shared in her triumphs when she managed to reach a student and, by some divine grace, change his life forever. I’m sure there are dozens of people out there who credit her with changing their lives. I’m sure of it because I met one a while back who told me that if it hadn’t been for her he would have never achieved anything in his life. He’s a computer programmer now, and a successful one, something he would not have accomplished without my mom teaching him to love English.
It’s not easy being a teacher but let me tell you this, without them we would be nothing. So the next time you hear that G.B. Shaw line about people teaching because they can’t do, please consider that one teacher who taught you to believe in yourself and to whom you are eternally grateful.