November 22

The Best Teacher I’ve Ever Had

In a recent interview, Seth Godin asked people to think about the best teacher they ever had. I reflected on mine, and the impact that he's had on my life, and how he continues to impact my life 30 years later, as a writer and creator.

To say he was generous, would be an understatement. He showed up early. He stayed late. And he wasn't getting paid anything extra to do it. As an adult, I'm so much more of aware of what it means for someone to do that on a teacher's salary, especially in a small Texas town. It was an infinite well of generosity, commitment and investment in my growth. I'm not sure why he did it. But I'm eternally grateful that he did.

First, he taught me to believe, by seeing in me what I couldn't see in myself. Rather than seeing who I was, he saw who I could become. He held me to that standard. He pushed me without being forceful. He motivated me without trying instill his ideals or career choices in me, a lesson that I feel many teachers in the arts fail to learn.

He taught me how to practice, learn from my mistakes, and develop discipline and confidence in my artistic abilities. I learned that you could overcome a lack of any natural aptitude if you were willing to practice in a way that was deliberate and consistent. Looking back and connecting the dots 30 years later, I realize what he taught me was the foundation on which my career as creative has been built.

When I expressed my annoyance about talented musicians and their massive egos, he taught me that every one of them had that attitude when they went into an audition. It was necessary if you wanted to compete. It served me well in my auditions and it's been an invaluable lesson as a professional speaker. At the same time, without explicitly saying it, he somehow managed to teach me that ego was the enemy of greatness, and would comeback to bite you in the ass.

I'm not sure I've ever had a natural aptitude for anything.

I've become a writer by writing a lot. Shitty first drafts, shitty first sentences, shitty first books, and lots of false starts. I occasionally stop and wonder(particularly early in the morning before my coffee has kicked in), "Whoever thought it was a good idea to pay me to do this must have not had their coffee the morning they made the decision."

I'm pretty sure that every writer, regardless of how many books they've sold, sits down at the blank page and thinks “WTF”, while contemplating throwing their laptop against the wall. As Dani Shapiro wrote, “Masters of the form quake before the page.”

But once in a while, once I’ve reached 7000 words a week and everything feels like it's coming out the wrong end, I surprise and delight myself, and that motivates me to come back one more time. Speaking to those of you who are writers, I think we write because we have to, not because we want to. It's the only we know how to navigate the geography of a creative life, and make sense of the world.

I became an avid surfer and snowboarder the same way. Showing up and getting my ass handed to me over over until I could stand and eventually fly. The guys on my 7th grade basketball team would probably find it hard to believe that I've done either.

January 13, 1993 is a day I'll never forget. It was one of those days that makes you wonder how different your life would be if things had turned out differently. Every detail is etched into my memory.

We all piled into a van, driving through a torrential downpour from Bryan to UT-Austin to audition for the Texas Music Educators Association All-State band. The music building on campus was filled with the sounds of musical virtuosos in the making. Young musicians played complicated scales, passages, and pieces at rapid tempos to near perfection. There are only three words to describe this that could really sum it up. As the late Michael Jackson said of his musical career, "This is it."

I missed all state band by one chair and I remember the name of the kid who beat me and the stupid beret he was wearing, Scott Jackson. And I remembered the senior who I had the pleasure of sharing a stage with at all region band, Clayton Capps. What I learned through the experience and how this helped shape who I have become, regardless of the outcome of that day, is something that will be with me forever.

I didn't make any best-seller lists with my latest book. And in writing about this, I'm seeing this lesson coming full circle again 25 years later, a lesson about process, not outcome, about creativity for its own sake, mastery instead of metrics, and the value of creating for an audience of one.

Teachers don't often get to see the impact they have on their students because they only get them for one chapter of their lives, maybe a year, or longer if they're lucky. And they are, unfortunately, some of the most under-appreciated people in society. Whether you're a billionaire or best-selling author you've had a teacher who made an impact, the best that you've ever had. They all plant the seeds for who we ultimately become.

Thanksgiving is about gratitude. And looking back over 25 years that have passed, I'm really grateful for the year that James Whitis was my band director. He was the best teacher I ever had.


You may also like