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Anne Lamott on the Life-Giving Power of Great Teachers

“All good teachers know that inside a remote or angry person is a soul, way deep down, capable of a full human life.”

“You try to appeal to the goodness of every human being and you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone,” the great civil rights leader John Lewis insisted. A century earlier, Helen Keller, a supreme optimist of the human spirit, asserted that “the highest result of education is tolerance.” It can be said, then, that if we are bent on building an ennobled world of dignity for all, nowhere is the urgency of not giving up on any human being greater than in education.

That’s what Anne Lamott explores in a beautiful passage from Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair (public library) — the miraculous little book that gave us Lamott on how we endure with sanity in a crazy world and the essential difference between routine and ritual.

Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott

Lamott writes:

People who teach others to read or to navigate a library, who don’t give up on slow or challenged students, will get the best seats in heaven. I don’t know a lot, but I know this to be true.

My brother teaches special education at a local high school. I think he will be seated near the Godiva chocolate fountain on the other side of eternity. Our father taught English and writing to the prisoners at San Quentin in the fifties and sixties. All good teachers know that inside a remote or angry person is a soul, way deep down, capable of a full human life — a person with hope of a better story, who has allies, and can read.

Echoing Parker Palmer’s luminous wisdom on education as a spiritual practice, Lamott adds:

To me, teaching is a holy calling, especially with students less likely to succeed. It’s the gift not only of not giving up on people, but of even figuring out where to begin.

You start wherever you can. You see a great need, so you thread a needle, you tie a knot in your thread. You find one place in the cloth through which to take one stitch, one simple stitch, nothing fancy, just one that’s strong and true. The knot will anchor your thread. Once that’s done, you take one more stitch — teach someone the alphabet, say, no matter how long that takes, and then how to read Dr. Seuss, and Charlotte’s Web, and A Wrinkle in Time, and then, while you’re at it, how to get a GED. Empathy is meaning.

Complement this fragment of the wholly magnificent Stitches with John Dewey on the proper purpose of education, Nietzsche on its true value, and the beautiful letter of gratitude Albert Camus sent to his childhood teacher shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize, then revisit Lamott on how perfectionism kills creativity, the greatest gift of friendship, and how we keep ourselves small with people-pleasing.


Eyes on the Stars: Astronaut Ronald McNair, Who Perished in the Challenger Disaster, Remembered by His Brother in an Affectionate Animated Short Film

“When he went out in space and he looked out at the world, he saw no lines of demarcation. It was a world of peace, he said.”

Eyes on the Stars: Astronaut Ronald McNair, Who Perished in the Challenger Disaster, Remembered by His Brother in an Affectionate Animated Short Film

Shortly after noon on January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off on its tenth mission. Seventy-three seconds later, off the coast of Florida, it combusted into a ball of fire and smoke on national television, imprinting generations with the shock of the tragedy. All crew members — five men and two women, including the first-ever non-government civilian to travel into the cosmos, a schoolteacher named Christa McAuliffe — perished. Among them was 35-year-old astronaut Ronald McNair (October 21, 1950–January 28, 1986) — a promising young physicist, a skilled saxophonist, and the second black person to fly into space. (On another Challenger mission three years earlier, Sally Ride had become the first American woman in orbit.)

Ronald McNair
Ronald McNair

In this wonderful animated short film from StoryCorps, the text of which is included alongside other moving and deeply humane stories in the marvelous book Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work (public library) edited by StoryCorps founder Dave Isay, McNair’s brother Carl and his friend Vernon Skipper remember young Ronald’s defiant spirit of curiosity.

Folded into this affectionate account is a larger piece of civil rights history, a counterpoint to cultural stereotypes about race, law enforcement and even librarians, and a meditation on the elemental impulse for curiosity that animates all scientists and propels all science. Above all, the story emanates a clarion call to never forget — never forget our history, however difficult it may be to own up to, never forget our heroes, however tragic their fate, and never forget the power of storytelling as a caring keeper of our collective memory.

Carl McNair: We knew from an early age that my brother Ron was different. When he was nine years old, Ron decided to take a mile walk from our home down to the library — which was, of course, a public library, but not so public for black folks, when you’re talking about 1959 in segregated South Carolina.

So as he was walking through the library, all these folks were staring at him, because it was white folk only, and they were looking at him and saying, you know, “Who is this Negro?” [Laughter.]

He found some books, and he politely positioned himself in line to check out. Well, this old librarian says, “This library is not for coloreds.” He said, “I would like to check out these books.” She says, “Young man, if you don’t leave this library right now, I’m going to call the police!” He just propped himself up on the counter and sat there and said, “I’ll wait.”

So she called the police and subsequently called my mother. The police came down, two burly guys, and say, “Well, where’s the disturbance?” She pointed to the nine-year-old boy sitting up on the counter. One of the policemen says, “Ma’am, what’s the problem?”

So my mother, in the meanwhile, she comes down there, and she’s praying the whole way: “Lordy, Jesus, please don’t let them put my child in jail!” My mother asked the librarian, “What’s the problem?” The librarian said, “He wanted to check out the books. You know that your son shouldn’t be down here.”

The police officer said, “Why don’t you just give the kid the books?” And my mother said, “He’ll take good care of them.” Reluctantly, the librarian gave Ron the books, and my mother said, “What do you say?” He said, “Thank you, ma’am.” [Laughs.]

Ron did exceptionally well at school, and he was very good in science and math. During his junior year in high school, his chemistry professor told him about a summer institute for math and science, so he went three hundred miles or so from home to participate in this program. He met a professor there who said, “The highest academic level you can go is PhD, and young man, I think you should shoot for it.” And Ron says, “That sounds like a pretty good idea, sir. I’ll get a PhD.” And he went on to get a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Then, when NASA was looking for astronauts, here he was with a PhD in physics.

Ron went on a space flight in February of 1984. When he went out in space and he looked out at the world, he saw no lines of demarcation. It was a world of peace, he said. And two years later, he took his last flight on the space shuttle Challenger.

You know, as youngsters, a show came on TV called Star Trek. Now, Star Trek showed the future, where there were black folk and white folk — all kinds of folk — working together. I looked at it as science fiction — that wasn’t going to happen, really. But Ronald saw it as science possibility.

He was always someone who didn’t accept societal norms as being his norm. That was for other people. In Ron’s own words, he was the kind of person who “hung it over the edge.” He’d go as far as he could, then go one step beyond that.

Ron was a country boy from segregated, small-town South Carolina. Who would dream that he could become an astronaut? But it was his time. And he got to be aboard his own starship Enterprise.

Callings is a tremendously nourishing read in its entirety, featuring stories by and about inspiring humans from walks of life as varied as firefighters, NBA referees, funeral directors, and librarians. Complement this particular thread with Primo Levi on how space exploration unites humanity and the wonderful Blast Off, a vintage children’s book that envisioned a black female astronauts decades before one flew into space.


Leo Tolstoy, Shortly Before His Death, on Love, Reason, Human Nature, and What Gives Meaning to Our Lives

“Reason and love define the demands of human nature… The demands of reason and love must not be subordinated to the demands of habit.”

Leo Tolstoy, Shortly Before His Death, on Love, Reason, Human Nature, and What Gives Meaning to Our Lives

Some of humanity’s most celebrated writers have championed the benefits of keeping a diary, but none have reaped those more ravenously than Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 10, 1910). In his youth, the journal was a record of his moral and spiritual development; on its pages, he worked himself out and found his purpose. In his old age, the diary became Tolstoy’s most direct medium of reflection on the meaning of existence, gleaned from a long, imperfect, yet vibrantly lived life.

The final year of these reflections was translated into English by Leon Stilman and posthumously published as Last Diaries (public library) — a trove of wisdom from one of the most psychologically insightful and largehearted writers our civilization has produced.

In an entry from June 30 of 1910, penned more than thirty years after his memoir of the search for meaning and less than five months before his death, he examines the redemptive requirement of living. Long before Holocaust surivor Viktor Frankl’s memorable assertion that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances,” Tolstoy writes:

There is no evil. Life is a blessing. If it is not, then know that you are at fault. And you have been given time to correct your error, to have the joy (the highest blessing) of correcting your fault. That is the only reason for time. If you do not correct your fault, it will be corrected against your will — by death. Yes, life is a blessing. There is no evil. There are only our faults, faults in general and our personal ones, and we have been given the joy through time of correcting them. And there is the greatest joy in correcting them.

Three decades earlier, his compatriot and contemporary Fyodor Dostoyevsky had articulated a similar sentiment in his own diary, where he reflected on why there are no bad people. Like him, Tolstoy considers our faults and harmful behaviors rooted not in an inherently bad nature but in bad habits of heart and mind. Our redemption, he argues, lies in rewiring those habits and reorienting them toward goodness:

Reason and love define the demands of human nature… The demands of reason and love must not be subordinated to the demands of habit … but on the contrary [one] must ascertain on the basis of the demands of reason and love what is to be habitual.

One of Maurice Sendak’s forgotten illustrations for Tolstoy’s 1852 book Nikolenka’s Childhood

In another entry penned the following day, half a century before Martin Luther King, Jr. made his memorable case for love as the guiding force of human life, Tolstoy continues along the same line of meditation:

Our life is a quest for gratification. There is physical gratification in health, in satisfying the lusts of the body, in wealth, sexual love, fame, honor, power. All these gratifications 1) are outside our control, 2) may be taken away from us at any moment by death, and 3) are not accessible to everyone. But there is another kind of gratification, the spiritual, the love for others, which 1) is always in our control, 2) is not taken from us by death, and we can die loving, and 3) not only is accessible to all, but the more people live for it, the more joy there will be.

With an eye to the thing in us in direst need of stewardship, he adds:

Isn’t it a strange thing that we understand least of all what we know best of all, or rather: we know best of all what we do not understand at all, our soul.

Last Diaries is, lamentably, out of print but is well worth the used-book hunt. Complement it with Tolstoy on finding meaning in a meaningless world, what separates good art from the bad, his forgotten correspondence with Gandhi about violence, human nature, and why we hurt each other, his reading list of essential books for every stage of life, and this rare recording of him reading from his Calendar of Wisdom shortly before his death, then revisit the brilliant and underappreciated Henry Beston on human nature.


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