An Understanding Heart

December 29, 2014

An understanding heart is everything in a teacher and cannot be esteemed highly enough. One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feeling. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child. Carl Jung

My mother often said that we are truly fortunate if we encounter one gifted teacher in a lifetime. I have been especially blessed to know many, and none has meant more to me than Jean Lutz, my fifth grade teacher, who died recently at the respectable age of ninety-nine having taught her students to love learning and do great things. She imparted warmth, exuberance for life and a respect for ideas and all cultures, both ancient and modern. She understood the human heart and inspired all of us to love art and books and to make learning a lifelong commitment. Her students grew up to be prominent scientists, philosophers, journalists, doctors, lawyers, artists, film producers, musicians and writers who carry through life the awe of beauty and ideas that they saw first through her eyes.

Her human kindness and her gift for reaching her students’ innermost thoughts and feelings changed my own life. I was a very shy little girl when I walked into her fourth grade classroom, a new kid, classed as a slow learner at another school that valued conformity and discipline above imagination and experimentation. In the months that followed, Ancient Greece came alive when Ms. Lutz read The Iliad. Our noisy, boisterous little group looked in wonder at pictures of the Winged Victory of Samothrace. We journeyed to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to see William, the little blue Egyptian hippopotamus, and came back home to paint pictures of him using blue pigments that we ground ourselves just as the ancient Egyptians had. I saved my allowance to buy The Odyssey, which I have carried around with me through many moves and still reread fondly today. My doodle of a guinea pig on an arithmetic paper excited my teacher far more than my figures, and she excused me from math to develop the little animal into a much bigger picture, an effort that helped me understand scale and color and made me feel that even my most humble efforts had value.

In his compelling keynote address delivered at Fall Conference in Charlotte this past November, Allan Gurganus called upon his audience to remember one or more amazing teachers who took pains to find our talents. “Of our teachers we can say: ‘it is they that have made us and not we ourselves.’” Allan Gurganus found his great teachers in North Carolina. Mine happened to be in New York. Wherever we may grow up, caring and gifted teachers are essential to our development as readers and writers.  Without them there would be no literature. We owe them our continuing gratitude, and society owes them its highest honors and unstinting support.