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Penkava: Teachers and their two-legged legacies

Published: Tuesday, May 21, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

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Writer’s note: Since we now are finding ourselves in the graduation ceremony season, I thought I’d share one retired teacher’s perspective of what goes through our minds this time of year…

“Commencement.” We all know that word means the beginning of something. For students, it’s the beginning of, well, pretty much everything they will do with the rest of their lives. But for teachers, commencement means something different. Sure, it marks the end of the school year. But those graduation caps sailing into the air is the definitive signal of the close of their daily opportunity to impact their students. And in the wake of the final notes of “Pomp and Circumstance,” we teachers deeply wonder what kind of legacy we left to those on our watch.

You see, no matter who we are or what we do, we all leave our footprints in the dust of history. Like Neil Armstrong and the other astronauts who walked upon the moon, all of us give some evidence of our presence, some with small steps, and others with giant leaps.

The imprint that we leave depends upon what we choose to do with our lives. There is no one noble profession, for what is noble is not our title, but our passion. And as one contemplates legacy, one finds that just as there is no love without commitment, there is no legacy without passion.

Thus, whatever legacy one leaves with one’s audience is the product of what one has brought to the stage. In many professions, the legacy can be instantaneous and clearly defined. Artists see their painting hanging proudly on a wall. Electricians can flip a switch and see the fruitage of their labors traveling at 186,000 miles per second. Even a rookie newspaper columnist can feel a sense of accomplishment when he sees his byline in print.

But with teachers, it’s a bit different. They have nine months to work their magic. That’s about 180 school days, give or take a snow day or two. And what happens after those nine months? Well, to be honest, most teachers don’t know. They may get a “World’s Greatest Teacher” coffee mug the last day of school and hope, in that student’s case, that they were. But what real effect they had upon their students pretty much remains a mystery to them. And for a person of passion, an empty, unknown legacy is not only sad, it is unfair.

And so the students come and go, those mysterious nine-month-legacy-carriers. Somewhere inside each of them walks the results of some teacher’s loving-kindness, some teacher’s extra mile, some teacher’s dedication and passion. After all, it’s really not about how smart a teacher made us think, it’s how smart they made us feel.

Albert Einstein once said, “Everybody’s a genius. But if you judged a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” Our challenge as former students is to remember that teacher who treated us like a genius even though we were a fish out of water. The one who long ago gave us that little spark that made us believe we were not only worthy, but extraordinary. The one who made us come to life as we walked into their classroom … that teacher whose name still spontaneously pops into our mind when triggered by some inexplicable connection.

So as graduates toss their caps into the air and parents proudly snap their photos, we teachers sit there hoping that someday our two-legged legacies will think back kindly upon what we tried to do for them during those 180 precious days. After all, teachers don’t need mugs … they just need to be remembered.

• Michael Penkava used to believe he was a stupid fish, but it was a teacher who convinced him that tree climbing, although honorable, wasn’t really necessary for success. Thanks again, Mr. Libert. He can be reached at 

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