D.J. Tice on teachers: The student was flailing, the teacher appeared

  • Article by: D.J. TICE
  • Updated: June 12, 2010 - 6:49 PM

It was dark and cool in the North Woods cabin, still long before dawn, as I woke feeling a gentle squeeze on my shoulder. Mr. Englund was crouched beside my bunk with a finger to his lips. He whispered for me to get up quietly, without waking the others.

I was 10 or 11. Mr. Englund was our neighbor. That week the Englund clan was hosting my family at their northern Minnesota cabin, treating us to a week of fishing, swimming, campfires and, best of all, waterskiing.

I was miserable -- suffering a fortunate child's crisis, the kind of social trauma that seems trivial and even amusing except when it's happening to you.

I couldn't get the hang of waterskiing. The youngest in my family and our circle of friends, I was a bit clumsy and positively paralyzed by the impatience, criticism and taunts of the other kids. On our first day at the Englunds', as had become my pattern, I had tried, failed, and, in the face of a chorus of ridicule, quickly abandoned any attempt to join in the skiing.

Mr. Englund noticed.

That second starlit morning, he led me down to the mist-shrouded dock. As he loaded the skiing gear into the speedboat, he explained that he and I, just the two of us, would head out on the lake and take all the time I needed. No pressure, no problem. He said he figured I'd be skiing by breakfast.

An hour or so later I skied back into the dock, crowded by then with tormentors, who were suddenly impressed. Or anyhow, that's the way I remember it, and I'm sticking with it.

I never became much of a waterskier. Many crises of confidence lay ahead. But I learned something that's never left me that morning about how it's possible to figure a baffling thing out if you just relax, take time, and recognize that frustration is your enemy.

Most important, Mr. Englund showed me the stunning power of kindness and personal attention, of noticing the obstacle another person faces, especially a child.

I had many other fine teachers who taught me invaluable things. But none better.

D.J. Tice is at dtice@startribune.com.

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