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  • Writer's pictureDonna Gerard

TEACHING NEVER DIES

Updated: Oct 6, 2023



I whole-heartedly and unapologetically believe in the American Dream. I love the idea of liberty and justice for all and I think it is what we, as a country, should be aspiring to. We are not there yet, but I think we can and should achieve it. Where did this this deepest belief start for me?


I was in elementary school, sitting in my weekly music class. Music was far from my favorite subject, and for sure I have no natural talent for singing. Every week we sat with our song books, and before we could request to sing our favorites, Mr. Axtel would introduce a new song. Before playing a note, he would tell us, to my mind, some long boring story about the song’s background. Then one day he told us a story from his childhood.


He was a boy traveling down South to visit family. They had gone shopping and he got thirsty. He saw a water fountain and stopped to take a drink. A police officer grabbed him by the back of the collar, lifting him off the ground, feet dangling, and started yelling in his face. This white boy had committed the crime of drinking from the colored water fountain, crossing a line that wasn’t his to cross. Mr. Axtel went on to teach us about segregation in the South and about Apartheid in South Africa. I was horrified at the injustice, and the absurdity, of separate restrooms, water fountains, schools, neighborhoods, and anything else. While I have no idea what song he was introducing, Mr. Axtel had opened up a new horizon for me and colored my thinking forever.

Fast forward many years to when I became a teacher. He taught me a lesson that I would pass on to hundreds of students he would never meet. I passed his lesson on when I was teaching science and explaining that race is nothing more than an artificial construct. There is only one race: human. I passed his story on when I taught literature, or (sadly) current events. I passed it further when I taught the Holocaust, because inhumanity among humans translates to all places and times. I have to wonder just how far I passed this forward.


At some point in mid-career, a first year teacher approached me at a beginning of the year meeting.

“Ms. Gerard? I don’t think you remember me. I was your student when you were a first year teacher. I just want to tell you that I never forgot your lesson on the Holocaust. You are the reason I became a teacher.”

With some prompting, I remembered her, Marissa Callibria, and the lesson. We had huge closets with sliding doors in the back of the classroom. I emptied everything out and instructed the whole class to stand in the closet. They were packed in uncomfortably, just like the Jews stuffed into train cars on their way to the concentration camps. That’s where they stood as I taught my lesson. I like to think that the new teacher, who thoughtfully remembered standing in that closet ten years prior, might have absorbed the lesson and passed it on to hundreds of students I would never meet.


I’m certain that Mr. Axtel had no idea of his impact during that music class. Teachers never know if what they say or do is going to matter past the next quiz or report card. They should never assume that it’s “just today’s lesson.” Nine year old me was just another face in the constant procession of squirmy kids. But I was listening and absorbing the heart of his words.


Christa McAuliffe said, “I teach. I touch the future.” Just like Mr. Axtel. Just like me. Just like Ms. Callibria. Did Mr. Axtel’s lesson get passed on further than that? I’ll never know, but I think so. Knowledge and wisdom get passed on infinitely. Teaching never dies.

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