THANK A TEACHER
"A good teacher is like a candle - it consumes itself to light the way for others." Mustafa Kemal Ataturk
Without a doubt, these are challenging times for teachers. Besides their role in imparting knowledge, teaching thinking skills, and assisting each child to become exceptional in his or her own way, this year they are playing a critical role in helping our world return to something close to normal. In this Wednesday Wisdom, I want to thank one of my most memorable teachers, and in doing so, express gratitude to millions of other teachers who daily wade into the deep waters of our children's education.
I was profoundly blessed by many teachers and coaches in my 19 years of formal education. One who had the greatest impact was J.B. Varnell, my English teacher during my senior year of high school.
Due to our family's tenuous financial situation, my attending college in the fall was heavily dependent on securing a scholarship. The key scholarship required that I write an essay about influential people in my life. I wrote the essay and asked Mr. Varnell if he would check the spelling and grammar. He took it and said he would review it and get back to me.
The next day, Mr. Varnell said, "Scott, I think you've done a pretty good job with this, but I see something that concerns me. I don't think I've done as good a job as I would like to have done in teaching you how to write for college. Why don't you come back after school and we'll work on your writing skills."
That afternoon, I learned that he was not content to merely correct the spelling and grammar of my essay, or even to help me revise it. His plan was to give me an extended one-to-one tutorial on how to write at the college level. For the next week, we met every day before school, at lunch, and after school, while he instructed me on the finer points of expository writing. Then he sent me out on my own to rewrite the essay.
What I did not appreciate at the time was that he was doing all this on his personal time, time when he could have been working on his own projects, hanging out in the teachers' lounge, or going home to be with his own family. There was no added pay for his service to me, no reward for him other than the joy of helping a needy student better prepare for the future.
After I rewrote the essay, I brought it back and we reviewed it together. Mr. Varnell was beaming when he read the final version. It sharply highlighted my strengths and life experiences, making the case for why I deserved the scholarship.
I submitted the essay and my application to the scholarship committee and a few weeks later I received some very good news: I was awarded the scholarship. It covered FULL TUITION for FOUR YEARS. Thank you, Mr. Varnell. What an amazing blessing you gave me!
But securing the scholarship was only the beginning of the impacts of Mr. Varnell's gift.
When I went to college that fall, like all new students, I took a placement test to determine which freshman English class I would register for - remedial, average or advanced. Having attended a little Podunk high school in desolate Kirtland, New Mexico, I worried that I wouldn't test well and would be relegated to the remedial track, or what we students affectionately called "dumbbell English."
To my surprise and thanks again to Mr. Varnell's tutelage, I tested into Advanced Freshman English. That turned out to be a major learning opportunity for me. It was primarily an intense and accelerated writing class taught by a full professor. The competition was extremely keen. At the end of the semester, the professor gave only one A in that class. It may have been on my report card, but I felt it really belonged to Mr. Varnell.
A few years later I went to law school. I fully attribute my admission into law school, my eventual appointment as Managing Editor of the Brigham Young University Law Review, and my completion and publication of two professional scholarly articles during law school to that marvelous one-to-one tutorial I received in high school during those extra-curricular sessions with Mr. Varnell. His sacrifice on my behalf set the stage for my professional success. For me, his generosity was the gift that kept on giving.
* * * * *
It is interesting to me how life sometimes has a way of coming back around. In 1999, a few months after moving to Orlando, I got a telephone call from a young man named Steve Lee. I didn't know Steve, because he had been away at college since our arrival in Orlando, but I knew his parents from church.
He said, "Hello, Mr. Farnsworth, this is Steve Lee. I am Dan and June Lee's son. I'm home for a few weeks on spring break."
"Oh, nice to meet you," I said.
"I understand, Mr. Farnsworth, that you are an attorney."
"That's true," I replied.
"I understand that attorneys know how to write fairly well."
"We think we do, I guess."
"Well, I need some help. I'm applying to medical school, and I have to submit an essay as part of my application. I've written an essay about why I want to go to medical school. I need to complete it during spring break. I wonder if you would be so kind as to check the spelling and grammar."
A big lump came up in my throat. You already know who I was thinking about - J.B. Varnell. That was the same request I had made of him back in the spring of 1970: "Will you please check the spelling and grammar?"
Even though I was incredibly busy during the next two weeks, I could not merely check Steve Lee's spelling and grammar. Instead, Steve and I spent many hours together as I gave him pointers on how to create the best possible essay. By the time we finished, he had written an essay that we were both pleased for him to submit to the medical school admissions committee.
A couple of months later, I received another phone call from Steve Lee. "Hi, Mr. Farnsworth, guess what? I've got great news. I've been accepted at the medical school at Washington University in St. Louis. Thank you so much for your help with my application essay."
Today, Dr. Steve Lee is a pain management specialist at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans. Dr. Lee completed his medical training at Washington University, then went on to perform an internship at Tufts University and a residency at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts.
As I said, these things have a way of coming back around. Now I am wondering who will be asking Dr. Steve Lee for his help with their application.
This wonderful thread of giving service and then paying it forward leads back to an unselfish high school English teacher in Kirtland, New Mexico, who was willing to take the time from his own busy life to tutor an unpolished student writer and equip him with the tools of success. Thank you, Mr. Varnell, for making such an enormous difference in my life. And thank you also to millions of other teachers who every day make such a huge difference in the lives of their young students.