Teacher, by Mark Edmundson, is an homage to one of the author’s high school teachers who, as the subtitle reads, “made the difference.” In Edmundson’s case, the difference was the transformation of a young man by the opening of his mind. At the start of his senior year, Edmundson was drifting; he lacked any motivation outside of the ubiquitous teenager’s quest for popularity. Then a recent college graduate named Frank Lears taught an introductory course in philosophy. Edmundson was dramatically affected and went on to pursue a career in academics. Today, he is a college professor at the University of Virginia.
Though not a theologian by training, Edmundson contextualizes his experience in spiritual terms as a conversion. He becomes a devoted disciple of Lears, soaking up his wisdom like a neophyte at the feet of his master. He even employs Jesus’ famous Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1–9; Matt 13:1–9; Luke 8:4–8) while reflecting on his transformation. Presumably, Lears spread seeds all around the high school. Edmundson proved to be good soil.
I had a history teacher who based grades in part on class participation. Much like Edmundson, I had my mind on sports during most of the day, so while I was a good student, I rarely participated in class discussions. Motivated by my grade, however, I dutifully raised my hand in this class. On one particular occasion, the other students were divided about some issue. While I can no longer recall the specific dispute, I’ll never forget what happened next: I raised my hand and read verbatim from the textbook. Confidently, I snapped the book shut with gusto. Case closed; argument over. My teacher responded with a sneer, “So, someone else’s opinion decides everything for you, huh?”
Doubtless, my former teacher has no recollection of this exchange. Perhaps he had said this line before and many times afterwards. Truth be told, I didn’t really like him to begin with and, upon reflection, I think he could have made the same point without shaming me. But I could never deny his impact. Those words have literally echoed in my mind through ten years of higher education. Now that I am a pastor, this admonition prevents me from proof-texting any easy answers, whether from scholars or the Bible itself.
In a similar way, Teacher is not an ode to a Patch Adams version of pedagogy. Edmundson’s teacher is neither overly kind nor even appears to take much of an interest in his students. Frank Lears is not Matthew Perry starring in a made-for-TV movie about a big-hearted teacher saving underprivileged youth. And so, there is a wonderful honesty to Teacher. It causes one to wonder just how many lives we have forever changed unbeknownst to us. Just think of all the seemingly insignificant and inconsequential seeds we’ve sown. Who knows what they have grown to be today?