Serendipity on the Erie Canal

About two weeks ago, I had enough. I was struggling, frantically trying to uncover a solution to a problem I was having at school.

In a word: apathy.

In several words, the epidemic that has taken hold of the vast majority of my students. The idea that in this life, problems that are too challenging to solve should be abandoned. Life should come easy in a first world country, in this safe and remote corner of Western New York.

I felt the weight of it. Almost like Giles Corey in The Crucible, the pressing fear that I had somehow failed. I took to the canal, as I often do when I can no longer sit in my skin and search for an answer. That night was cold, dark descended, and I ran through the frustration, and nearing the end of my run, pulled up short to find a familiar face in front of me. 

It was my 4th grade teacher, Mr. Southworth, one of the dearest teachers of my life. We stood there for some time, exchanging pleasantries. But as is often the case, the topic swiftly turned to education, and my new position in the area. He sensed my frustration, and we schemed together about root causes, possible change, and future effects of this issue. 

The most wonderful thing about Mr. Southworth is his ability to tell the right story, in the right moment. In 4th grade, my peers and I would linger on every word he said, and would throw excited glances when he signaled a story was about to begin.

He signaled yet again, that night on the Erie Canal. And again, I lingered on every word. 

He told me a story from his youth, when his Chemistry teacher gave a bonus question on an exam. He worked and labored over that question, and finally when he submitted his test, implored the teacher to give him the correct answer for the bonus. The teacher said, “why, that problem is unsolvable. As many problems in life often are.” 

As the story finished and he turned to walk away, I realized that in the dark, on that cold night in early November, my 4th grade teacher was still teaching me, still guiding me 25 years since last I sat in his class. He paused, turned back and said, “Kiddo, in this world there are often problems that are unsolvable, but you do the best you can.”

And then I sat in my car and cried tears for all that I cannot change and cannot solve. And I quietly thanked the teachers who continue to do their job, long after they are required to do so. And the next day, I got up and went to school, fire and passion in my heart to continue to give every ounce of energy to my students, whether or not they recognize the effort. And in 25 years, I hope to still be teaching, just like Mr. Southworth. 

Happy Tuesday, all.

More about Al


    1. Alix,
      In a world of unsolvable problems, we’ve been confronted with yet another. You have summed up this man’s life so beautifully. You are, indeed, a testament to Wilson’s love of taching and of students. He was my second daughter’s favorite tacher of all time.
      Thank you for this profound study of a precious man.
      Janice R Cramer, fellow teacher

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