This is to answer a question someone asked me -- about eight years ago.
I'd written a column bemoaning some Great Social Problem, and this lady called, demanding to know what I was going to do about it. If the world was indeed going to heck -- and she didn't argue the point -- what was I, personally, individually, doing to stop it?
It was less a question than a challenge, and I didn't have a good answer. Still, it struck a nerve, because I had pondered the same thing for years before she and I ever spoke. Just as I've pondered it for years since.
I've long believed that once you get a handle on the basics of your individual life -- food, water, shelter, a toy or two -- you're obligated to do something to enhance our collective life. Obligated to make a contribution that goes beyond the boundary of your personal concerns.
But how? That's proven a difficult question for me. I've been a literacy tutor and a Big Brother, but neither was a comfortable fit.
A couple of weeks ago, I tried something else. A couple of weeks ago, I became a teacher. A volunteer, to be exact, at a high school in town. One morning a week, I engage a room full of bright young people on a topic dear to my heart: Techniques of Writing. It's early in the process, I'll grant you. Too soon to know if this will work out. But I have to say: I haven't felt this good about anything in a long time.
I've always been fascinated by full-time public school teachers. Always felt that anyone who chooses to work for limited pay in a crumbling facility to educate resistant young minds . . . must have a screw loose somewhere. But it's a failing from which we should all draw inspiration, a noble flaw that keeps the best of them reaching out, year after year, just to catch that one kid who, miraculously, decides to reach back.
If you're lucky, maybe you can cite one or two teachers who reached you, one or two who made such a difference in your life that even today you occasionally think of them with gratitude.
Over the summer, I went back to L.A. for my (say it ain't so!) 25-year high school reunion. While I was there, I made it a point to go see two such teachers -- Mr. Jacobs, whom I had for 10th grade English, and Mrs. Harrison, who taught me when I was a sixth-grader. I guess I just wanted them to know that I appreciated the work they did. I guess I wanted them to know that it mattered.
Sometimes I find myself hoping I can do a good enough job as a teacher that 20 years from now, one of my kids remembers and comes back to see me. Seems like that would be rather gratifying. But that's just ego talking, isn't it? Just the need to be recognized and extolled. Truth is, the deeper I get into this, the less I worry about them remembering me 20 years from now. It'll be enough if they remember their homework next week.
But the urge to project 20 years ahead sort of sums up the problem with many of us idealists and would-be change agents. We want to cut straight to the payoff, straight to violin music and roll the credits. We want change to be instant and of a single piece.
But it doesn't work that way. Change is like one of those computer-generated images made from thousands of smaller pictures. Change is a bridge, painstakingly built of many bricks.
I understood that less well eight years ago, which is why the challenge the lady threw at my feet seemed so daunting. You want to say, What can I do? I'm just one person. You feel small against the ponderous weight of the need.
But if you're lucky, you discover something of the nature of change, and the knowledge lends you solace.
So if that lady ever calls again, I'm ready. I will tell her -- proudly -- that I am a brick in the bridge. I am a teacher.