By Robert Mann
It was the only time I remember a college professor leaping onto his desk during class. I don’t recall the subject, except that it had something to with a war and he wanted to act out a battle for us.
As I recall, he even came to class dressed as a soldier.
Needless to say, he got our attention, and class that day – like most every other day — was captivating and exhilarating.
Dr. Jones, who taught history at ULM for 47 years, died on Tuesday. He was 83, but stopped teaching just last May.
“He did not just teach history,” ULM President Nick J. Bruno said in a statement, “he lived history. Our students and alumni tell us he made the world seem like an adventure and that anything was possible.”
Dr. Jones’ passing has me contemplating the profound impact of so many great teachers — from Ms. Wilder, my first grade teacher at Sallie Curtis Elementary in Beaumont, Tex., to Ms. Marion Eady, a sixth-grade teacher at George C. Marshall Junior High, about whom I wrote in this Times-Picayune op-ed in 2008.
Through every phase of my life, I’ve been shaped, nurtured, supported, encouraged, chided, celebrated, and consoled by teachers.
And they taught me, too.
But the most important and lasting gift from these amazing people was not the information they poured – or pounded – into my brain. More significant was what they taught me about life — how they guided me and ignited in me a passion for learning. (Most of which, by the way, could never be measured by any standardized test.)
In my tattered copy of the “Barnes & Noble Book of Quotations” is this highlighted wisdom from my favorite poet, William Butler Yeats, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
I read that quote every so often just to remind myself what’s really important in my relatively new career as a college professor.
It’s an important lesson to remember: It’s not just about the information; more important is the inspiration.
When I think about the great educators in my life, I rarely think about the information dispensed and the skills taught.
I do, however, think about how they inspired me.
Dave Norris, my college economics professor, taught me – and still teaches me – so much about economics. But Dave also educated me about life and, in time, became a mentor and treasured friend.
Richard Baxter, my first journalism professor, taught me so much about writing, but also inspired me to consider a career in public service. It never occurred to me that I could live and work on Capitol Hill until Richard gave me that vision and confidence.
I could list a dozen more teachers who changed my life in ways large and small.
But my thoughts today settle on Dr. Jones and how he helped ignite my enthusiasm for American history.
There’s one class period that is indelibly etched in my memory and helps me understand the awe that he inspired.
When he taught us about World War II, I’m sure we discussed the causes and the battles and the important generals. But Dr. Jones wanted us to know more. He wanted us to understand the war, to feel it.
That required a story, not from a history book, but from William Faulkner.
The short story was “Two Soldiers,” the moving tale of an eight-year-old country boy who follows his older brother, Pete, to Memphis, hoping to accompany him to Pearl Harbor where he can help by chopping and toting wood for the older soldiers.
Standing before us that afternoon, Dr. Jones began to read. It’s a riveting story, narrated by the little boy who watches his brother — his hero — leave the family farm for an uncertain future in a distant war.
As the story culminates in the boy’s brief, emotional reunion with Pete in a Memphis army recruiting office, Dr. Jones began to cry. He was so overcome, he could barely finish reading us the story.
It was the single most memorable moment of my college career. For years, I would regularly re-read “Two Soldiers,” not wanting to forget the experience of that class period. Just this morning, over coffee and through my own tears, I read it again, this time in memory of Dr. Jones.
Those few riveting minutes in class more than 30 years ago helped me understand that history is learned and communicated in so many ways, and that good fiction can inform us just as profoundly as a dry history text. More important, a great story can move us, give us an experience and set the dry facts of history into a truly meaningful context.
More than anything, however, the episode reminds me of the importance of giving oneself completely to the work of teaching and shaping young lives. And to not be afraid of being vulnerable.
I regret that I never found time to seek out Dr. Jones and tell him about how he, his class and that moment made such a difference for me.
In some small way, I hope this remembrance might partly atone for that awful omission.
If I could talk with him now, I would say simply this: “I hope that I can someday be half the teacher you were. Thanks for lighting the fire.”
God bless the teachers. I know you’ve had several like Dr. Jones in your life.
Before it’s too late, tell them thanks.