Editor’s Eye: the mark of a good teacher

Jon Marmor, Columns MagazineEons ago, I spent my years as a UW student in the Art Building basement, inhaling stop bath and fixer as I finished a degree in photography. So I never took a Jon Bridgman class. But it seems like everyone else I know did. Or went to his alumni History Lecture Series. Or both. And loved every minute of them.

I know, because when the sad news of his death March 9 began to spread, everybody winced, and then started telling Jon Bridgman stories.

That’s the mark of a great teacher. The best ones get under our skin, in a good way. They get us up in the morning when we would rather linger in bed after a late night because who would want to miss that infectious enthusiasm? Our favorite teachers make us think and grow and smile. And they push us.

Yes, I am biased. As the son of an elementary school teacher and a college professor, I grew up around teachers. I helped my mom schlep washed-out milk cartons to her classroom and I went with my dad to the pier in Southern California to collect seawater for his organic chemistry lab. I even put myself through school as a teacher’s aide (5th grade).

Every time a school year grinds to a close, I think back to the teachers who helped steer me to where I am today, from Mr. Gonzalez, the dressy 8th grade Spanish teacher (he wore a sport coat every day!) who leaned on us not only in class but also in an after-school chess club, to Mrs. Combs, my high school journalism teacher, who always wrote on my papers to “watch the million-dollar words; just say it.”

But perhaps the best lesson I ever learned occurred in the photography classroom in the UW Art Building. One day, the professor gave us this assignment: Go do anything you want. I don’t care what you do or how you do it. Just be ready to explain what you did and why.

As someone who tends to think very literally, I was stumped. Then, one day, while I was out wandering around with my camera, feeling adrift, taking photos of this and that, it hit me: something my dad told me over and over. College isn’t about teaching subjects—the role of college is to teach you how to think. I never really knew what he meant until that very moment. Suddenly, the fog in my head cleared. That was the mark of a great teacher. While Jon Bridgman may be gone, we are so fortunate to have many teachers here who have done the same thing for us—and will do the same thing for our children.