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    May 8, 2012

    What’s the Most Important Lesson You Learned from a Teacher?

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    Steve Silberman over at NeuroTribes recently asked several writers to share stories about teachers who’d had important impacts on their lives. Here is Rebecca’s contribution about her experience going through school, and the way her own path changed:

    As people who’ve read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks know, I first learned about Henrietta and her amazing HeLa cells in a basic biology class when I was 16 years old. My teacher, Mr. Defler, wrote Henrietta’s name on the chalkboard and told us she was a black woman. That was it, and class was over. I followed him to his office saying, “Who was she? Did she have any kids? What do they think about those cells?” He told me no one knew anything else about her. ”But if you’re curious,” he told me, “go do some research, write up a little paper about what you find and I’ll give you some extra credit.” At that point I was planning to be a veterinarian — something I’d been determined to do since I was a small child. I had no intention of becoming a writer. I looked for information about Henrietta but didn’t find anything, so I didn’t write that extra credit paper. But I never forgot about her — in fact, I was a bit obsessed by her.

    More than a decade later, while working my way through an undergraduate degree in biology so I could apply for vet school, I took my first creative writing class as an elective. (Amazingly, the school I went to counted creative writing toward its required foreign language requirement, so I signed up for creative writing thinking it would be less work than the alternative… but that’s another story). At the start of that class, the teacher gave us this writing prompt: ”Write for 15 minutes about something someone forgot.” I scribbled, “Henrietta Lacks” at the top of my page and began writing an essay about how the whole world seemed to have forgotten about Henrietta, but I was weirdly obsessed with her. I fell in love with writing in that class but still had no intention of becoming a professional writer. I had what I now refer to as Veterinary Tunnel Vision.

    Then one day, when I was getting ready to submit my applications for vet school, my writing teacher, the amazing John Calderazzo at Colorado State University, pulled me aside and said, Do you realize you’re a writer? And do you know there’s such a thing as a science writer? I didn’t. He told me he thought the world needed more people who understood science and could convey it to the public. You know, he said, you don’t have to go to vet school just because that’s what you always planned to do – you could get an MFA in writing instead. I told him I’d never even heard of an MFA and had never for a moment thought of giving up on my dream of becoming a vet. Then he said these essential words: Letting go of a goal doesn’t mean you’ve failed, as long as you have a new goal in its place. That’s not giving up, it’s changing directions, which can be one of the best things you ever do in life. The next day I started researching MFA programs in creative nonfiction writing. The rest, as they say, is history.

    In 1988 when my biology teacher told me to see if I could find any information about Henrietta, neither one of us could have imagined that more than twenty years later, I’d publish a book about her having spent most of my adult life looking to answer a question he inspired in that classroom. Before my book came out, I tracked down that biology teacher, now long retired, and sent him a note: “Dear Mr. Defler, here’s my extra credit project. It’s 22 years late, but I have a good excuse: No one knew anything about her.” He was shocked. I was just one of thousands of students he’d taught in countless huge auditoriums, most of us (myself included) looking disaffected and half asleep. He didn’t remember that moment in class when he first told me about Henrietta, but I did. Which is an amazing thing about classrooms: You never know what random sentence from a teacher will change a student’s life.

    (You can read the original post here, along with stories from many other writers about their educational experiences and teachers who inspired them.)

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