Teacher’s words ripple beyond the classroom

Teacher's words ripple beyond the classroomI heard about her all my life, but never met her.

Claudia S. Kincaid was my father’s 11th-grade English teacher. He’d been warned of her toughness before he even set foot in her classroom.

She did not disappoint.

Whether she was standing before a class with chalkboard at her back, or sipping coffee with a troubled person who needed a listening ear and honest response, she lived and practiced the three “C’s” of teaching: Comfort, Confront, Correct. But it was the “confronting” skill that etched her role permanently in my father’s life and now in mine.

She had assigned the class a research paper. She returned the papers to everyone in the class except for my father. He raised his hand to inquire.

“See me after class,” she said, her stern voice sparking an Oh-my-Lord-what-have-I-done-now feeling, Dad recalled.

When they were alone, she reached into her desk drawer and pulled out the paper that had enough red marks on it to “flag down the local freight train.” She locked my father in the grip of her tough gaze and said, “R. F. Smith, you are better than this,” and shoved the paper in his hands and walked out the door.

“That statement turned me around in more ways than writing,” Dad said. “Whenever I’ve conned myself into doing less than I’m capable of doing, I hear the distant, but ever so close and present voice of my teacher: ‘You are better than this.’”

She was a teacher bent on giving the best to her students, and demanding the best from them. Teaching was not something she did; teaching was something she was. The very fiber of her being vibrated teaching, not so much as a profession, but as a lifestyle. Stretching to learn was prelude to living, she believed. Without it, life could never be experienced to the fullest.

There are two kinds of leaders in the world, Dad contended: one builds a fire under people and the other builds a fire in people.

Mrs. Kincaid was a leader and teacher who built fires in people. Oh, she could build a fire under a person but only as a place to begin. She was never satisfied until the fire got inside the person. And she accomplished this with expertise that comes only from a person who herself was motivated by a love of people and a love of learning.

You are better than this.

It inspires: yet, it haunts. To hear it from the lips of a respected advisor challenges our effort in the context of our potential. All in one small phrase.

Mrs. Kincaid is gone. And so is my father. The lessons written large on the old blackboard are fading as chalk turns back to dust.

But the real lessons ripple on, a litmus test for finding our best.

Am I better than this?

Henry Adams was on target when he wrote: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at Herald-Dispatch.com.