When I was in high school I had the same English teacher, Father Shane, for four years. It might have been a disaster had he not been such an incredible educator. In fact, he easily became my all time favorite teacher and the favorite of countless other students as well. I think the secret to his popularity lay in the fact that he introduced us to aspects of life that few of us had ever before known. One of his favorite sayings was that he was going to show us how to be citizens of the world.
I had never heard of the The New Yorker magazine before he posted cartoons from that periodical with regularity. The satire and artistry in those illustrations were remarkable. They introduced me to the Addams Family before everyone else met them on television and later in movies. To this day I have an online subscription to the magazine and now and again I collect copies of some of the most historic and iconic covers.
Father Shane also brought reproductions of works of art into the classroom. He took us on field trips to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the sculptures of Alexander Calder. He told funny stories about Matisse and other artists. He showed us how to assess the colors, techniques and subjects of art. He made us aware of the wondrous centers of art across the globe.
Long after I had graduated from high school and he had died I visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. I was stunned by how much of the collection I had learned about from Father Shane. I literally stood in front of some of the pieces thinking, “Hey, Father Shane, here I am looking at some of the greatest art of the century and you helped me to understand and appreciated it.” I even had an emotional moment when I felt so enormously grateful that he had indeed made me a citizen of the world.
When I visited the Globe Theater in London my thoughts went to Father Shane as well. It was as though I had arrived as a well rounded person as I sat on those hard benches and watched Shakespeare being performed in much the way that it might have been done back in the Elizabethan era. I was proud to be able to explain the story and the language to the rest of the group just as Father Shane had done for me when I was just a teenager wondering why we should have to pore over language filled with cadences and words that were so unfamiliar.
On a visit to the Tate Museum I knew the story of the Lady of Shalott, a painting that is part of their permanent collection. I would later purchase a lovely English rose named for that character of art and poetry. On every occasion such as these I would marvel at how much Father Shane had taught me in four short years. He was the person who opened my once blind eyes to the beauty of music, art, literature, theater, and even the way we speak and write our language. His gift has been a treasure that keeps me open-minded about the ideas, creations, and talents of my fellow humans both from the past and in the present.
There is a great deal of concern these days about the influence of teachers on students. Most of that worry centers on unscrupulous teachers attempting to brainwash students. While this does happen sometimes, it is much more likely that students will find that one extraordinary teacher who changes their lives and enlightens their minds.
When I first entered Father Shane’s classroom I was a backward and ignorant little girl. I left with an enlightened mind, ready to learn for a lifetime. I became a great appreciator of the arts just as he predicted I would. I deeply understood the tremendous talent and hard work it takes to create something that endures through the ages. He taught us to look for the nuances of a particular word, a comma, a color, an empty space. When I read or gaze at a work of art I see more than just its superficialities. I can almost feel the soul of the person who made it.
Upon visiting the British Museum I was walking down a long hall when I saw a tiny painting in a far away room. It beckoned to me and I walked quickly past lovely portraits and landscapes in pursuit of the face of a woman that seemed to be calling me. When I finally stood in front of the striking piece I saw that it had been painted by Leonardo da Vinci. It took my breath away because Father Shane had taught me how to honor the genius of such a treasure. I stood silently for a very long time and tried to imagine what Father Shane would have said about the portrait. I also thought of how remarkable it was that I was looking at a work of art created so long ago by one of the masters of painting. I wondered if I would have even been in that spot at that time if it had not been for Father Shane.
Perhaps we would do well in today’s atmosphere to applaud our teachers a bit more rather than insinuating that they are ruining our children’s minds. I hate to think that we are damping the spirits of gifted teachers with all of the outrage that surrounds our schools. Who will grow weary and leave the profession? Who will become afraid to discuss certain books or plays or works of art out of fear that someone will complain? There are many Father Shane’s out there who have made a huge difference in the lives of countless students. Find them and remind them of how wonderful they are. Support them in the great work they are doing. Congratulate them for mastering the art of teaching.