Those Who Can Change Lives, Teach

In August 2011, my old 7th-grade Geography teacher, Mr. Button, sent me a message saying that he was dying:

Last week I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that has spread to my liver. They say I have between 6 weeks and 6 months. I’ve accepted it, treatment may be an option for pain but doesn’t hold out much hope for extending my life. I’d hoped for a much longer retirement but I’ve lived a great life and have no regrets. I’ll hang in there as long as I can.

It was the kind of message you get that makes you go from “it would really be fun to catch up with Mr. Button in person someday” to “I should go now.” I scribbled a probably-way-too-long, overly emotional letter to him in a notebook in the Tuolumne Meadows campground, mailed it a couple days later, and booked a flight to Omaha for a few weeks later—assuming he’d live longer than six weeks.

I hadn’t seen Mr. Button since 1993, and now he was only five inches taller than me instead of a foot and a half. We spent an afternoon catching up in his living room and at lunch, and it was great to see him, even though I’d already written all the important things I’d wanted to say in the letter I’d sent him a few weeks earlier.

Mr. Button was the first person to encourage me to write for a publication, which in 7th grade was the Red Oak Junior High Today, a stapled set of photocopied pastel pages edited and laid out by Mr. Button himself. He let me write in whatever voice I wanted to, and even gave me a monthly column in the paper. I tried to write funny stuff, with varying degrees of success. There was no extra pay in it for him; he just did it because it was fun. Two decades later, at the end of a very indirect path, someone asked me what I did for a living, and I was able to truthfully say, “I’m a writer.”

It’s now fall, and I have a niece and a nephew returning to school, wearing backpacks bigger than they are, and lots of other friends have kids now settling into the pattern of sitting in classrooms for what seem like long hours every day, after a summer of the best kind of freedom. Those kids are meeting a new group of teachers who will help them through their early learning experiences, and a handful of them might meet one of the teachers who will truly make a difference in their lives.

We worry about a lot of things in the educational system in America, spending tens of thousands of dollars and sprouting grey hairs trying to get our kids into the right preschools, losing sleep over trying to get into the right college and then spending decades paying off our tuition, hoping we have all the right tools and that we picked the right major and have enough extracurricular activities to impress admissions staff and that somehow all of this will lead us to happiness and success. I grew up in small towns and went to public schools, and I never wonder if things would be different if I had gone to “better” schools—I think back on the handful of teachers and professors who really reached me.

I don’t know what Mr. Button saw in me that made him reach out and say “you should write”—maybe he saw me play basketball and realized that wasn’t going to work out so well, and thought he should suggest an alternative. But I’m glad he did, and I thanked him for it. I’m glad that Dr. Steve Corbin, in a meeting with me when I was a semester away from graduating with a marketing degree but had the audacity to think I might be a writer, encouraged me to apply the principles from his marketing class to selling my writing, instead of pushing me to think about a sales job. Michael Downs chaired my grad school thesis committee, and was not afraid to compliment my writing in the same sentence he questioned whether or not I wanted to be a writer bad enough.

I imagine as a teacher, you have moments where you wonder if you’re really reaching anyone in the classroom, and I hope all teachers realize that even though students may never thank them for it, they’re shaping lives—even if it’s only one student in a class of 25. A small push in the right direction, a tiny piece of encouragement or even tough love, can be the difference. No teacher starts down that career path thinking they’re going to get rich, or that their long hours are going to pay off in something material—but hopefully they can collect on others’ dreams coming true.

One morning last week, I sat in the backseat of a friend’s car on the way to a climb, frantically scrawling sloppy notes as the car whipped around a curvy mountain road climbing up to one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. It was a less-than-ideal “office environment,” but I wanted to get the story out while I could. The next day, I typed it into my computer and a couple hours later, sold it to a magazine. Seventh-grade me couldn’t have imagined a better scenario, really (although maybe bigger paychecks).

Last month, Mr. Button posted on Facebook:

Three years ago today I learned I have pancreatic cancer. The normal 5-year survival rate is only 15%. I don’t do normal.

And thanks to him not settling for normal, I’m still trying to write funny stuff, to varying degrees of success.

-Brendan

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32 comments

  1. I love this post. I grew up in small-town Iowa (both of my parents were teachers, incidentally), and remember those teachers who believed in me, and propelled me forward in some way. It felt so good when I had a chance to thank a few of them later for their influence and inspiration.

  2. In your letter to me you wrote, “I hope you can think of me as one of your greatest accomplishments, as a teacher and as a person. I have no doubt there are dozens of others who feel as strongly, and are lucky to have known you.” Over the past three years I have heard from hundreds of former students, many of whom I would never have guessed I had influenced in any way. Thank you, Brendan, for being the kind of student every teacher dreams of working with. I am so very proud to be able to call you my friend.

    1. Great story about you and the importance and impact of building relationships with students. Gladto have our paths cross during my career. Doug

      1. This post about the relationship between a writer and one of his early teachers brings a lump to my throat. I am a writer who owes much to her own small-town (Randolph, VT) teachers. Thank to Brendan and his teacher, Mr. Button, for reminding me of this.

  3. doug larson, my sustainable development professor at CU Boulder, is the reason i shifted my focus in school and am where i am now. he unexpectedly passed in the middle of our term, and although i can’t thank him personally, when i look at what has shaped me into who i am, i always think of how he challenged me to look at things, and think, a little differently…

  4. Thanks for sharing Brendan. It’s great to reflect on those people who helped shape our character and careers.
    Keep up the good writing, and I hope Mr. Button pulls through this and lives to inspire more people for many, many more years.

  5. One of the greatest flaws with the current direction in our primary and secondary educational systems is that it tends to hammer down the outliers, the students and teachers that are somehow outside the middle range of the bell curve. At the student level, the emphasis on core standards means that outstanding abilities in areas such as the arts tend to be shoved aside in favor of a standardized notion of excellence (mediocrity really). At the level of teaching, the mad dash to hit all the core standards means that there is little time and no reward for taking that extra step to reach out and touch (figuratively) a student. Indeed, students who somehow fall overboard in the rush (algebraic concepts in the 3rd grade!) rarely have the opportunity to catch up. And so the nails that stick up–the Mr. Buttons of the educational world–often get hammered. Amazingly, many still stand, taking their lumps and their miniscule paychecks and touching lives. Great post Brendan!

  6. another gem. thank you Brendan for being a teacher to us. your posts, like this one, are often thought provoking and heartfelt. I find some of the best life lessons in your writing.

  7. Excellent piece! I had a few good Iowa teachers too. HUGE thanks to Jack Britton, the hard ass ex-rodeo clown art teacher at Clarion-Goldfield (our school was so small it had to be combined with another town!)

  8. Brendan,
    Thank you for sharing that with us. As we’ve all grown on to do our “own” thing, I really appreciate to see what former classmates and teachers are doing these days. I was not aware of Mr. Button’s situation and how you’ve described him as a teacher and person is 100% accurate. He continues to be one of my favorite teachers I or many of our classmates ever had and our Wednesday “News Game” was something that we all looked forward too.
    Mr. Button, if you see this, thank you for being someone that we could always count on, learn from and you always brought out the best in us. I always appreciate how you always welcomed former students back to your class room. Keep fighting neighbor.

    Jason Huntington

  9. Very well written. I believe what makes educators like Mr Button extraordinary is giving their best when they may or may not ever realize the positive influence until years later if ever, but do it anyway for years. I had Mr Button as well and while my own profession in life is that of being a mom to 3 kids I am certain that the confidence I gained in his class (and narrowly winning the Governor election in 7th grade) has made me a better leader throughout my life and hopefully in the lives of the kids I raise.

  10. The power of social media. I came across this in my facebook feed!

    I had no idea what had happened to Mr. Button, much less that he was ill. Your post moved me nearly to tears. He was an exceptional teacher for me and his timing was impeccable. Channeling self-conscious, conformist, awkward 7th graders into intellectually curious individuals is no small task. But, what I remember is that I began that year not wanting to stand out, and I left that year wanting to achieve as much as I possibly could. Whether he would now judge me, or my life’s efforts a success, is an entirely different story. However, those years are very special to me and it’s because there were teachers at that time (particarly him) encouraging me to think bigger. Not just to memorize and learn, but to evaluate and reach for bigger things than I could conceptualize in my 12-13 year old mind. Brendan, thank you for saluting him and others with this gift. To Mr. Button, wherever you are — Thank you for opening the door of intellectual curiousity, for encouraging us to be students of the world, to watch/read the news and evaluate the information we receive and for not accepting less from us.

  11. What a fantastic, uplifting post and what a PERFECT video clip. I taught high school math for 6 years before quitting to raise my children and my husband teaches high school science currently. It is a very undervalued and not appreciated field of work, TYPICALLY, but not always. It is like parenthood. You really do not understand how much you are loved and appreciated until many many many years down the road.

    We have chosen to homeschool our children, but they have numerous opportunities outside our home life to interact with teachers of all sorts: piano, gymnastics, art, drama, etc….and I know that these wonderful individuals are important role models who will help our children grow into wonderful, kind and valued citizens.

    Thank you for appreciating the teachers!!

  12. Mr Button dont know if you remember me but just wanted to say Hi … but i remember u used to think i hated your class lol even though i didnt i just had stage fright lol but hope everything is going great for you ttyl 🙂

  13. I had Mr butten in middle school I changed my life around because he told me how my life was going down the wrong path thank you so much from the bottom of my heart I am a mom and wife thanks to him and the talk he gave me at age 15

  14. A truly great post that, as a teacher, brought a tear to my eye. Good on you and I am delighted that Mr Button continues to see your great work. Knowing that you inspire someone and that they then send those positive messages out into the world is greater pay than any money in the bank for any teacher. Keep on doing what you do, making the Mr Buttons of this world proud. When he breathes his last, he’l know it was worth it down to examples like these.

  15. Brendan this incredible article made me cry. Which is fine; except I’m at work. oops. I did reconnect with Mr Button on Facebook just this week. I had learned of his cancer & I was glad to hear from him how optimistic he is about defeating this. If anyone can, its Mr. Button. The unfair turns of life are sometimes cruel. Mr Button deserves a retirement filled with travel and leisure. But instead he is enduring painful treatments and I imagine handling it better than most of us handle a “boo boo.” I guess this way he is still able to be present, local and available to those of us who seek him out…he is still teaching us.

    My time in Mr Button’s classroom was spent as a student teacher. I learned so much from him. I have always felt completely privileged and totally unworthy of seeing such an extraordinary teacher in action. His teachings were more than his lessons, extra activities or relevant discussions he was the full embodiment of loving what he did and caring about the students to an extent that he would see gifts, talents, struggles and issues in ways that most parents could not.

    Thank you again Brendan for this article. Its after reading pieces like this that we tend to reflect on our path and wonder if we are really taking care of those things that truly matter.

  16. Kia ora Brendan from New Zealand.

    You and Mr. Button had me reflecting … I can still hear the voices from those who inspired and shaped, even though I went through school back in the 70’s and 80’s. Just brilliant and thank you.

    Now, if I can only get Mrs Armstrong out of the head, that wasn’t a voice I was wanting to be hearing! :0)

  17. Many, many thanks for this! I know that I have had teachers and mentors like this in my life – that’s how I ended up where I am. These days I like to think that I have the same impact on some of my students and occasionally they do actually tell me so. The impact we each have on the lives around us is often difficult to measure and only really reflected back to us much later.

  18. Great article B, a tribute to Mr Button and all teachers who see, believe and bring out the best in their students.

  19. Incredibly touching! What an awesome tribute to Mr. Button. The best teachers are the ones who “don’t do normal”, but instead, buck a system of data collection and test scores to truly teach life lessons.

  20. I’m a teacher who sometimes writes things. I live in BC, where teachers are in the middle of a bitter labour dispute with the government, which has been a slog for everyone involved. So your validation of my profession couldn’t come at a better time (I’ve gotten used to being characterized as “greedy” and “selfish” lately).

    Also, last year, my high school french teacher, one of the best many of us ever had, died suddenly of a heart attack. I always thought I would sit down with him as an adult and have a good talk. I still think that sometimes. It’s weird that it won’t happen.

    So, basically, you’ve done it again; thanks. I’m never sorry when I drop by.

  21. Great post. It resonated a lot – one of my most influential teachers in high school (deeply changed my life path and views for the better) announced to us in class one day he had cancer. He beat it too. And then there’s my mom, an amazing teacher and cancer survivor too. I have endless respect for the great teachers out there making a difference, and one day hope to become one of them. Thanks, to all of you.

    And Brendan, It’s posts like this or the ones about your mom and grandmother and friends – people and love – that keep SemiRad on the very top of my reading list. The outdoor stuff is great too, but this very human and real writing is why I can’t stop reading it.

  22. What a fantastic post. I, too, was affected by Mr. Button, though he may not realize it or even remember me! Several times I have thought about his way of teaching (and caring approach) over the course of my adult life. My first class with him was one where I went from being a closet Iron Butterfly Gan from an uber conservative family, to full-on shouting from the rooftops of my rock preferences. 🙂 Thanks for posting a great reminder on a great influence.

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Article by: brendan