Most of us have had one of those teachers. For one of my friends, it was the ninth grade biology instructor who inspired her to become a doctor; for another it was the art history teacher who introduced her to Rothko and a career as a museum curator. Details about those teachers’ classes almost never matter; they provide a different education, which outweighs the value of carefully composed lesson plans. Those teachers offer insight that has nothing to do with multiplication tables and nothing to do with grasping Shakespeare. Instead, they teach us the things we can’t find on Wikipedia or in textbooks. They teach us things that are real and genuine and valuable, things we have to learn about life, about people, and about ourselves. They show us the big stuff.
I had one of those teachers when I was fourteen. His name was Mr. Lehrer.*
Mr. Lehrer had just graduated from college when he stepped in as my middle school’s new eighth grade American history teacher, halfway through the school year. He was 23 years old, but his round, unblemished face made him look more like someone’s high school-aged brother than a grown-up with his own health insurance. Even without the Wrangler jeans and cowboy boots he would occasionally wear to school, Mr. Lehrer appeared inescapably unsophisticated. His wardrobe consisted of a country boy’s Sunday best: short-sleeve oxford shirts, pressed khaki pants, and brown round-toed shoes made of thermoplastic rubber. All of his slacks were oversized just enough to subvert whatever professional appearance he meant to convey, and his hair had a cowlick as prominent as his syrupy southern accent. Mr. Lehrer’s thin lips stayed sealed most of the time, but when he did speak the sound came not from vocal chords but from roots in the Texas Coastal Bend. He had the comportment of a farmhand, always equally proud and sheepish as he stood, stiff and silent, waiting to be told what to do.
Mr. Lehrer rarely gave orders, and few of my peers took him seriously. At any given moment, he could be found pleading for silence while students arranged their desks in uneven clusters to chat. We would gossip or paint our nails or dance to hip-hop as it buzzed through the speaker on someone’s T-Mobile Sidekick. The boys would turn daily assignments into paper airplanes while the girls made origami cranes and fortune-tellers, but no matter what shape the worksheets took they were neither completed nor handed in.
On the few occasions when Mr. Lehrer did attempt to enforce the rules, he would shout into the din of eighth grade chatter only to have his students ignore him. So, one day, he gave up and started to ignore us back. When the bell rang at the top of the hour each class period, Mr. Lehrer would seclude himself in a corner of the room and quietly read emails for the next 55 minutes. He looked less like a teacher and more like a disenchanted camp counselor, underpaid and trapped in a space too small for larger hopes.
Once Mr. Lehrer stopped trying to teach and started to condone our classroom debauchery, he became an object of fascination for my group of friends. Suddenly the new young teacher seemed interesting, or, at the very least, worth investigating. We began to surround his desk with our insipid adolescent babbling and our newly curvaceous bodies, asking him questions about his teenage years on his family’s farm or about his fiancée who worked as a nurse. We asked what it was like to grow up in a town with the population of our middle school, or if it was exciting to finally get a driver’s license, or how it felt to go to college and move away from home.
Shortly after my group of friends first invaded his corner, Mr. Lehrer warmed to us and began responding to our questions. He told us about the time he hit a deer while driving home down a dark dirt road, and he said that he moved to Houston for his fiancée even though his parents had raised him to detest city life. Eventually, Mr. Lehrer let us address him by his first name—Trace—and he allowed us to spend lunchtime every day in his classroom while he told us about his life. We sat perched on desktops while Mr. Lehrer talked, devouring our crustless PB&J sandwiches along with every word he said.
To us, Mr. Lehrer was omniscient: he had already written the chapter of his life that my friends and I were starting to scribble