25: The Teacher’s Kid

25: The Teacher’s Kid

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

The Teacher’s Kid

What the teacher is, is more important than what he teaches.

~Karl Menninger

The living room was dark, lit only by the soft light of our small Christmas tree. Everyone else, including my two children, was asleep upstairs. I tiptoed around the couch where my dad was sleeping. I knelt down to touch the presents while tears softly rolled down my cheeks.

“What’s the matter, Baby Doll?” I heard my dad’s voice call out to me.

“I’m just thankful, but I’m also afraid that this will be the last Christmas I’ll have with my family. No one understands what this is like.”

“I can’t tell you that I know how you feel, Baby Doll, but I can tell you what it feels like to watch your child have cancer, and it’s the worst thing I can think of. I’ve asked the Lord to take me instead of you.”

He was good at that. It was the teacher in him. He could always help me see things from a different perspective. And what an amazing teacher he was.

Almost every memory of my childhood involves a classroom. My dad grew up in a poor family in northern Ohio, where the other kids called him “Encyclopedia Brain.” He was brilliant and worked his way through college at the University of Kentucky in only three years, sometimes going hungry or sleeping in his car. He could have been anything, but he chose to be a teacher because knowledge was so important to him. And so he became a History teacher in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in eastern Kentucky where he met my mother.

We never had much, but Dad was a wonderful teacher, beloved by his students. He stood at the front of his classroom, talking about the history of the world without ever opening a textbook or using notes. When I was a young child, he would read to me, and I would watch him with wonder. I truly believed he knew everything about anything. Other kids felt the same way and followed him around. I craved his attention and spent many years angry and jealous of those students.

Back then, I didn’t like being a teacher’s kid. He was always coaching, studying, preparing a lesson, grading papers or spending long hours in the evening, weekends and summers preparing for his students. I watched as the high school students he taught called him “Dad,” and it made me very angry. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that some of these children didn’t have fathers of their own or the kind of father I had.

Dad was strict but kind. He expected me to work hard, get good grades, and show compassion for everyone regardless of status. His fairness-across-the-board ideals weren’t always well accepted by those who thought they were entitled to special treatment, but it made him a hero to me. I used to pretend I was asleep just so I could feel his strong arms lift me up and carry me to my room. And when I was sick, I’d feel his big hands check my forehead all night long to make sure my fever was going down. He had an answer to every question and could solve any problem, but I could never completely understand why he would choose a job that paid so little. On cold winter mornings, I would wake up to watch him through my window. He would leave at 5:00 a.m. for his second job as a school-bus driver before the school day even began.

As I got older, I resisted his high standards. My grades and behavior were expected to be perfect. But when I was a sophomore in high school, I got my very first B, in Algebra. As a result, I was grounded for six months. I had never been angrier at him. Other kids I knew were allowed to date and stay out late. They didn’t have to worry about studying. But I was a teacher’s kid and had to set an example. I stopped talking to him, and his appendix ruptured a week later. When I finally got to see him, he could barely speak. He could have said anything, but he looked up at me with tears in his eyes and said, “I’m sorry, Baby Doll. You aren’t grounded anymore.”

I graduated high school and went on to college. I chose the University of Kentucky because it was where Dad went, but I told myself I would never be a teacher. I didn’t want to be poor and work long hours. So, I remained undeclared while I worked two jobs to survive on a campus full of other girls who never worked at all. Boys became interested in me. I made some pretty bad decisions and found myself in the kind of relationship that requires sunglasses on a not-so-sunny day. I never told Dad what was happening, but he would always pick up the phone and offer me his ear and his very best advice. No matter what kind of mess I was in, I always had my “North Star” to guide me home.

In 2012, I was going into my third year of teaching (yes, I became a teacher) and had two small children of my own. I was married to a wonderful man, and life was good. But I found myself feeling very tired, more tired than usual. My worries were brushed aside by doctor after doctor. Finally, at the urging of my parents, I got another opinion. I was diagnosed with Stage IIB cervical cancer.

I called my dad, terrified. He told me that everything would be okay. The very next morning, my parents were on my doorstep, and we went to the Cleveland Clinic. The next few months were very difficult, and I felt sorry for myself. At my lowest, I called my dad. He read to me from the Bible and gave me passages to study. He was the pastor of a small church by then, and was, of course, excellent in yet another kind of teaching role. When he was able to be with me in the hospital, I noticed that he was falling asleep a lot. I asked him what was wrong, but he always brushed it off and turned his attention to me.

That Christmas, I found myself seeking the wisdom of my life’s greatest teacher once again. I had completed my cancer treatments, and he and my mother were staying with us as I recovered from months of radiation and chemotherapy. And in the light of that Christmas tree, he reminded me of the love and understanding he’d always given me throughout my life. Although I didn’t always appreciate it, I could see how truly blessed I was to be a teacher’s kid.

Two weeks later, he was diagnosed with Stage IV kidney cancer. I was devastated, and I started to wonder if maybe God had taken Dad’s offer to trade his life for mine. Since then, we have supported each other, and I’ve been able to teach him a few things — about living with cancer. But as my health reports have gotten better, his have gotten worse. My heart breaks at the thought of losing him. Sometimes, I wonder, “How will I navigate the world without my North Star?” But then I remember whose daughter I am. I’m a teacher’s kid. I can do anything because he taught me how.

~E.M. Slone

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