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.