Almost all of us have had, at one time or another, a teacher who made a difference in our lives. Most of the time, we never get around to thanking them. Teachers too often go to their graves without realizing, or at least without being directly told, how much they meant to so many.
My example is a guy named Patrick Beatts, who taught fifth grade at the Park School of Buffalo in 1946-47. (You pronounce the name the same as beets.) I know hardly anything about him. I've checked with Park, and they don't either.
He would have been around 30 then, I'd guess. If so, he could still be living today, somewhere, at 90. His name sounds Irish, but he loved the Rudyard Kipling stories about life in India. Tall and gaunt, with a mustache and a dark complexion, he looked as if he might be the product of a mix of colonial Irish and native Indian forbears, but that's just a guess.
Mr. Beatts was the first teacher I had who was male. All his predecessors, at School 22 and at Park, were female. I'd entered first grade when I was only 5. In these women's classes, I was always one of the youngest, smallest and smartest little boys, and one of the best behaved. The result was inevitable. I became a teacher's pet.
Patrick Beatts, bless him, was having none of that. He played no favorites. But his virtues went much deeper. He was an inventive teacher. You never got the impression he was following anyone else's ideas about how we should be taught. His ideas were his own.
I remember his reading aloud to us a series of stories about some English children and their adventures with a creature who had the power to grant wishes. The creature was called the Psamiad. Mr. Beatts read the book because he liked it and thought we would, too. He wrote a whole play based on it, which the class rehearsed and performed for an audience of parents and other students. (I was the Psamiad, in a costume that made me look like a large frog.)
Mr. Beatts' report cards were not like those of other teachers. I still treasure one of them. Here is how it begins: "A leader in the group and more accepted by them as such. They rely on his opinions, wit and idiosyncrasies as the members of a club do with a 'character' -- but he is no buffoon. He has given up his moody dreaming. He is more awake and inescapably cheerful." If I was cheerful, it was because I loved the class.
Further down, he writes that I was beginning "to try writing letter after letter instead of splashing them down in a series of flourishes as he used to do." A report like that doesn't tell you much about my attempts at learning. What it does tell you is that my teacher saw me as an individual, as a human being, that he cared about me, thought about me, and was sometimes amused by me. Such a report made me feel like an equal.
Mr. Beatts often used earthier language than we were used to hearing. It was part of the quality in him that meant the most to me. That quality was his iconoclasm, his willingness to be outspoken and to be critical of common habits and beliefs. He was critical of some of the policies of the school, too, which may explain why he taught there for only that single year.
The iconoclasm was invaluable for me, a timid little boy who believed what he was told, accepted the rules and played by them. My own father possessed many virtues, but he was very much a conformist. Mr. Beatts opened a huge door to a new world, a world in which you were expected to be yourself and think for yourself.
We learn the most by imitating our teachers. I certainly identified with Mr. Beatts. I incorporated his personality, in some degree, into my own. And that's the answer, I guess, to the question of "Where are you now?"
Where Mr. Beatts is now is inside the heads of the boys and girls who were privileged to be his pupils. So are a million other extraordinary teachers. Thank you all.
Robert Campbell, who grew up in Buffalo, is an architect in Boston and the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic of the Boston Globe.