WE WERE 15 minutes into the root canal. The contraption inside my mouth, which isolated my back tooth, made it impossible to speak. Through a large headphone set, The Killers played in my ear. A rubber jam held my mouth open.
I submitted to all this because of a dull, throbbing pain that had begun two weeks ago. I was miserable. I couldn’t wait to meet Dr. Rachelle “the Root Canal Whisperer” Cohen.
Sitting in the dentist’s chair, I’d found it easy to respond to her friendly questions about my teaching. Using color photos, she’d explained the root canal procedure, taking away the mystery. She’d offered me a simple set of hand signals I could use if I was in pain.
NOW THE WHISPERER leaned over, taking the right headphone off, speaking into my ear.
“Let me tell you why the work you do as a Humanities teacher is so important.”
She told me about her own high school teachers. “Mr. and Mrs. Plott — Western Civilization. A husband and wife team at my high school in Massachusetts. Lincoln Sudbury.”
“Even though I became a science person,” she told me, eyes intense in the bright lights, “I still remember their names. I don’t remember any of my professors’ names in four years of college, four years of dental school, and a three-year residency.
“But I remember their names. They changed my life and gave me a love for learning.”
She could have been speaking for me.
I DON’T THINK there’s a week that’s gone by since I began teaching that I don’t remember my junior-high/high-school English teacher.
Let me be clear. This Soul Teacher never became my friend. I was never his favorite student. I didn’t choose this Soul Teacher because he was a particularly nice man. He showed little warmth or affection for me.
Sarcasm was his brand of humor. Outside his English classes, he was also our coach, and he seemed far more interested in The Bros — guys who loved basketball, football … guys who liked any sport that had the word ball in it.
I hated any sport with balls. I was a bookworm, with a makeup antithetical to the rough and tumble world of sports almost every classmate seemed to adore. I fancied myself a poet and wrote lots of bad poetry in high school, college, and beyond — some I hoped to publish, eventually.
No, Brother Myrrl Byler and I would never be friends. Ever.
But it’s a fact. I have thought about his teaching with awe and wonder each week of my professional teaching career.
I REMEMBER THE week I began teaching in Phoenix, AZ. I was only 20, having never taken a college class. Since I was male and committed to patriarchy within the world of Conservative Mennonites, a college degree was not required. In fact, in this school, it would have been a strike against me.
It would have meant I had liberal tendencies.
As I confronted the sealed faces of 17 students, grades 7 - 12, Brother Byler’s teaching style was the life raft that kept me afloat during the stormy seas of my first few days of “teaching.”
I remembered his use of the Socratic Teaching Method to provoke our thinking. I remembered the way he made me question my world. And I followed his example. Even today, with a BA and MA tucked into my resume, I still do.
You don’t forget your first brush with magic.
TEACHING IS A mystery. Wise teachers understand that at its core, it’s an art.
State legislatures think otherwise. They’ve been busy over last few decades, trying to codify our craft. Thanks to their wisdom, public school teachers today receive feedback via complicated rubrics, instead of thoughtful, common-sense guidance.
Brother Byler didn’t have any of this superstructure in place.
He began his college education the year he began his teaching career, the year I entered his seventh-grade classroom. His lesson plans were casual, his evaluation techniques basic. I’m sure he was making up the verbal reading quizzes as he gave them to our class.
Yet we adored him.
EVEN IN THE midst of my rowdy class, I stuck out. I was completely uninterested in doing things the way everyone else did. Instead, I hid from the group by burying myself in books.
My reading wasn’t noble or literary. I took anything I could get my hands on. I plowed through The Hardy Boys, admiring their suave world of fast cars and speed boats. I chased down the smoggy streets of London with Sherlock Holmes. Occasionally, if desperate, I consumed Nancy Drew.
Other teachers had given up on me. I rarely did my homework. The efforts I turned in were sloppy and showed a lack of effort.
In addition, I ignored social graces. I ignored personal hygiene. Unless my mother ordered me to bathe, I ignored that too. My hair was perpetually tangled. My thick black glasses had an enduring smudge.
I trusted no one. I had given up. At school, the popular kids just wanted to play or talk about sports, which bored me. Small for my age, I had no place on the court or field. I am only competitive when I see a chance to win, and at that point, I didn’t stand a chance.
I spoke a different language than my teachers. They wanted to stuff facts into my head, cram me full of bullet-point lists. This bored me.
I had come a long way from the tiny child they once called Question Box.
Perhaps this was because I had learned there was only one correct answer to every question.
Who was God? Male.
Where did he live? In heaven.
What did he do? Recorded all my sins, any of which would doom me to hell.
What if I made a mistake? I’d go to hell.
Today I know we learn through mistakes. But back then, mistakes were sin, and sin earned you a place in the fiery pit.
So I stopped asking questions.
BROTHER BYLER WASN’T like my other teachers. He brought a different attitude to the classroom. Under his approach, questions became his primary teaching tool.
His insouciant attitude towards authority made us instantly curious – and gave him instant credibility.
We learned his story because he believed authenticity was important. We learned his story, little by little, during anecdotes offered us along the way to deeper truths. We learned his story during our wide-ranging discussions, where any topic seemed to be fair game.
His only goal seemed to be – as he put it – to make us think.
He had himself been a rebel within his fairly "liberal" Amish community, the Beachy Amish. After Hartville Christian High, he had graduated, relieved to be done with his education, convinced he was now ready to begin a real life.
This meant construction work and marriage.
But that summer as Brother Byler swung a hammer and drove nails under the blazing Ohio sun, he began to question the meaning of his life. He decided there had to be more.
One of the school board members talked to him. There was more. He would go to college and pay for his education by teaching.
THE CHEMISTRY BETWEEN our class and our new teacher was instantaneous.
Brother Byler must have heard the horror stories about our class because he decided to get an early jump on us. He did this by teaching our Summer Bible School class. And it worked.
Rather than have us fill out workbooks or create posters, Brother Byler read books to us. One of them satirized a weird religious community who used a blimp to communicate with their neighbors, rather than actually going next door and talking to them. Rather like our own religious belief that the way to save the world was by separating ourselves from it, rather than building relationships with others.
It was my introduction to satire, and it let me know immediately that somehow, Brother Byler, as we were required to call him, didn’t quite approve of the system. He got it – stupid religious systems could actually be funny.
That might have been when I first connected with my teacher.
BROTHER BYLER WAS the first teacher who made me question the value of the Conservative Mennonite world in which we lived.
He taught us Truth can be found through our doubts, our questions. I know now this was strictly antithetical to the school’s mission, which stated clearly teachers are to indoctrinate their students.
His teaching worked. It helped that my classmates and I were rebels — and this was mother’s milk to us.
My older sister — who was teaching kindergarten while I struggled through those difficult years — told me years later our class was deeply disliked by other teachers. As a cohort, we had been together since first grade, and no teacher could control us.
Once Brother Byler grabbed the reins, our loyalties snapped to him. Like a pack of dogs, we answered only to him. That trademark snarl he offered when we needed to shut up worked like magic. He was also the greatest authority we could quote.
Brother Byler was the first teacher who articulated the importance of living our lives guided by a quest for meaning. When I watched Dead Poets Society, eight years after I graduated from high school, I instantly recognized my high school teacher in Robin Williams.
Carpe Diem. Make your lives matter.
OUR TEACHER POSSESSED a burning energy, a restlessness only relieved by the times he spent on the basketball court with my peers in sweatpants and Nikes, whistle hanging around his neck. There, in his focus and intensity, he was at peace.
But in the classroom, he drove us relentlessly, forcing us to think about things we took for granted. Sitting on the desk in front of the room, textbook in his hand, he gazed at us as we tried to respond to his barrage of questions.
“What do people mean when they talk about faith?” he would ask. Rising, he paced the room restlessly, flipping the chalk from hand to hand in front of a blackboard etched with his awkward handwriting.
“It’s what we feel when we walk down the aisle at a tent meeting,” one of my peers said.
“So you think faith lies in how you feel?” he retorted. “You think emotions equal faith?”
I stared at him in awe. For the first time, an authority figure had asked the right question, even expressed honest doubt. For the first time, I was seeing mysticism deconstructed, and another option offered.
My teacher pushed on.
“How do we demonstrate faith?”
“By what we do.” The words popped out of my mouth, slipping into the silence, an idea being born. My class turned to look at me. My teacher frowned.
“Not by what we believe? So was Luther wrong? We are saved by our works?”
“No. We’re saved by faith.” I didn’t know where the words were coming from. “But suddenly I had something to say. “What we do — doesn’t it prove how strongly we believe something?”
Brother Byler offered me a half-grin, a reluctant tribute. “A question for a question.”
“Yes.” I wasn’t reading a book now. The latest Hardy Boys sat lonely under my desk. My eyes were locked firmly on my teacher. He measured us, then sighed.
“I’m no mystic,” he told us. “So no, I don’t think faith is found in the feelings you feel after trotting down the sawdust trail. It’s found in actions, yes,” he nodded to me. “But I think there’s more to faith than that. Anyone else know how faith might appear?”
“In our relationships to others?” This time it was Marlin, the best athlete in class. He was sometimes known as a deep thinker.
“Oh, man,” exclaimed a classmate. “That actually makes sense.”
I turned to look at Perry, whose family went to the same church Brother Byler had once attended. Perry usually played the class clown. But to my surprise, Perry’s face held awe.
My teacher eyed Perry, amusement flickering briefly. It didn’t quite fit the serious nature of our topic. I didn’t understand why my teacher thought Perry’s response was funny.
But I did grasp his concrete approach to faith.
BROTHER BYLER HAD a tough row to hoe with me. I had been raised in a home in which ideology was preferred to reason, so the insights I shared in his class were spotty at best. Yet, like the others in my class, I loved English, and him.
By then, I was in full rebellion against the system of education I was being taught.
I had been clearly taught the basics of survival by teachers who had beaten me with a wooden paddle several times across my first six years of elementary school.
I had learned the crucial lesson they intended to teach me: Open defiance is useless.
So I withdrew into my books.
There I could explore questions, find answers in my own way. I had learned that you don’t get into trouble when you keep your mouth shut, bite back the awkward questions. I was facing the Prussian system of education on which most schools in America are still based today.
They punish students for asking too many questions, and they encourage students who spout back information the teacher has just taught, whether or not it’s processed. Teachers have information to distribute, and with new testing laws, they have an agenda to meet.
Teaching students to think for themselves was and is a luxury – thus, by default they encourage mediocrity. Better a classroom filled with obedient but unimaginative drones who barely pass the test – but do pass it – than a group of restless rebels, some of whom might fail.
I didn’t need a college education to figure out the system – keep your mouth shut, do the minimum amount of homework, and hope the teachers will leave you alone. It worked. I blocked out all my peers and teachers.
But unlike my other teachers, Byler followed me into my world.
RATHER THAN DEMAND my obedience and respect, Brother Byler did the opposite. He taught our class to question everything. Under his guidance, we looked underneath the skin of life. I know now what he was trying to show us – that appearance and reality are often at odds.
I was Brother Byler's first project. I was skinny and short, brown hair slung low over my forehead, usually uncombed. I was invariably slouched down. So he began to pull me out of study hall, talking to me, trying to figure out how to help. He had me listen to records on "How to Study" after school.
But something made my teacher look twice. I remember being pulled out into the hallway.
"Why don't you do your homework?" Brother Byler would ask.
“I don’t know,” I would say. “I’ll try.”
I truly meant it. But after our conversation, I’d forget. I had other priorities, and none of them involved doing busy work. I had books to read, projects to start (and often leave unfinished) at home, more books to read.
The library was a far more interesting place than my math workbook.
So when the next assignment was due, I would shrug and slouch into my seat, hoping no one noticed. I should have caught the quizzical looks he gave me. I couldn’t have known about the conversations he had with my sister Rose, who had been hired as the kindergarten teacher. She told me about one years later.
“What do I do with your brother?” he once asked her.
My sister didn’t know. My parents – caught up in trying to make ends meet – didn’t have the time to think about it.
“I remember you sitting slouched on the couch, reading hour after hour,”she said. “You didn’t care much how you looked.”
So Brother Byler decided to wait me out, patiently.
“Sit up straight,” he occasionally told me when he saw me reading in class rather than working.
“Okay,” I’d say. As soon as he was distracted, my body would slip back down into my chair. It was a calculated position. There I could hide a book in my lap below my blank notebook.
Occasionally, as he moved about the class, Brother Byler found me too distracted by what I was reading to hide the book. He’d pull it out of my hands and smack my head with it. For the next few days, I would try to pay attention. I didn’t want to irritate him. But soon the cycle would begin again.
TWO YEARS INTO Brother Byler’s teaching, little had changed. Although I liked him as a teacher, my grades continued to slide – the books I was reading weren’t helping me with my academic work.
Then suddenly, it was too late. Eighth grade was over. I knew if I failed three subjects, according to the rules, I would need to repeat eighth grade. It was clear to me I wasn’t passing in English, science, and math.
I became worried. I had thought I'd slip by again. But I hadn't. And I knew what happened to those who failed a grade in our school – they were the ultimate social misfits.
When my parents got their children’s report cards in the mail, they were examined one by one. My parents both looked up at me.
“Where’s your report card?” they asked.
They went off to the phone, called the school, talked to my teacher.
Later that day, I was outside working when to my surprise, my parents appeared, wearing their Sunday clothes – my father even sporting his Plain Coat.
“We’re going to see your teacher,” my mother said. “Is there something we should know?”
I just stared at my feet. I knew whatever meeting they were going to have couldn’t be good for my future.
EXCEPT IT WAS.
Brother Byler did something unusual. Instead of merely flunking me – as he should have by rights done – he decided to have a heart-to-heart with them.
The hour they were at the school was pure torture.
I was sure they’d come home to tell me I had flunked eighth grade. I knew what happened to kids who failed. They got a whole new set of classmates. They got teased cruelly for being stupid. They were always known as a little slow.
No one would ever be my friend.
When the car pulled into the driveway, I was waiting on the steps. I followed my parents upstairs, focused and ready to listen.
They sat down on the couch and my mother fixed her gaze on me sternly.
“Brother Byler has decided to pass you to ninth grade” – my mother held up her hand to quench my relief – “on probation.”
I sat confused. In the haze that followed, I heard her explain.
“You have to get at least a C in everything. Except math, your weakest subject. You have to at least pass that. If not, you go back to eighth grade.”
And social hell, I thought.
My parents waited for me to process this.
“Will you try?” asked my father.
Only later did my parents tell me why I had been given a second chance. My Stanford Achievement Test scores had come back. I was at the bottom of my class in grades, but my scores ranked me at the top.
I guess all that reading had done something, after all.
SEVERAL MONTHS INTO my freshman year, Byler called me out into the hall. I was worried.
I faced him as he stood there, a busy teacher delivering the news. His smile was awkward, I remember, a quirky movement of the mouth. He was more comfortable giving a manly scowl.
"So you're keeping your grades up," he said. "Good work."
He looked at me. I looked back, silently. Then he turned and walked away, leaving me in the hall.
It would only be later that I realized how completely he had changed my life.
I STRUGGLED TO get through high school, trying to recapture and build a work ethic that ensured my work was done on time.
I graduated high school in the top half of my class. Of course, there were only 16 students in my class. But to my surprise, I discovered in college that something had transferred from my teacher to me.
I had failed eighth-grade English, which Brother Byler taught. But I had learned something. When I finally began college at the age of 21 — my father forbade me to go to college while I was still a minor — I chose to major in both English and history.
Five years and one Rotary Foundation Scholarship later, I graduated Malone University as the Outstanding Senior in English and Communications. I was also a committed high school teacher trying to replicate my favorite English teacher’s style.
I eventually found my own.
I’D LIKE TO think none of this would have happened without the influence of that high school teacher.
He was a soul teacher whose primary lesson was convincing me that the world of education was where I belonged. During his classes, his love for questions, ideas, and learning somehow transformed my own soul.
As I said, there’s magic to teaching — and no administrator’s rubric can accurately identify the teachers who make the greatest impact on the soul.
SO WHEN MY pleasure cruise through that root canal was interrupted by the dentist’s brief tribute to her high school Humanities teachers, I had no problem believing they changed her life.
I was right there with her.