We are now in the midst of Teacher Appreciation Week, May 6-10, which is a fine occasion for giving thanks to the teachers we’ve all had. It’s a noble profession, and I truly admire those who have the love and the skill — in part because I’m not so great at it myself.
I taught for a semester at NC State University in the fall of 2008, a class called “Principles of News & Article Writing.” That was back when the News & Observer newsroom was laying off staffers by the dozen and I was trying to figure out a backup career plan, and the one thing that semester taught me was that I’m no teacher. Oh, I got through it okay by working hard, and I even came away with surprisingly favorable (to me, anyway) reviews from my students.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t really a satisfying experience because I just never felt much of a connection, either with the students or the larger process. My best move all semester was probably when I offered free extra credit to any student who early-voted in that year’s presidential election, and I am proud to note that my class had a voting rate of almost 100 percent. Eighteen of my 19 students voted, the lone holdout being a foreign student who was not eligible (I came up with an extra-credit assignment for her to do instead).
Otherwise, those magic moments of buzz, when I felt like I’d really gotten through and made the students understand something important, were sadly few and far between that semester. I figured that was my fault, not their’s, and I was somewhat relieved when NC State cut its budget for adjunct lecturers the following semester. I had to let teaching go and that was when I began putting a lot more effort into freelancing, which went a lot better. It led to books and also laid the groundwork for the fulltime-freelance hustle I’ve embarked on since departing from the N&O a few months back.
Fortunately for me, I had a lot of teachers who were far better than I ever was in the classroom during my own formative years of education. And the one who probably had the most profound and long-lasting influence was a gentleman I met during graduate school at the University of Texas.
Way back in 1984, I was a UT graduate student mostly by default. I’d made a thorough mess of my undergraduate career by foolishly trying all the majors that led to well-paying jobs on for size. That went about as well as you’d expect, and I finally had to admit the truth: that I just wasn’t cut out to be a doctor or lawyer. So I got an English degree. I had no clear idea what I wanted to do beyond write, and my transcripts and grades were kind of in smoking ruins at that point. Thanks to a good score on the GRE Test, I barely squeaked into UT. So I went to grad school in journalism to try and figure out a path.
At UT, however, most of the professors were encouraging students to pursue thesis topics like designing computer programs to determine the “readability” of stories by counting the number of syllables per paragraph (and no, I’m not making that up). But I was already writing about music for the student-run Daily Texan newspaper and had something a little more offbeat in mind: a history of the already-defunct Armadillo World Headquarters, the funky concert hall that remained a symbol of Austin even though it had been torn down years earlier.
When I started talking to various UT professors about being my thesis adviser, they all reacted with puzzlement — until I approached Professor Gene Burd, who totally got it. Professor Burd had a reputation as, well, the “eccentric guy” in UT’s journalism department. Rumpled and cantankerous, he didn’t drive and referred to those who did as “Carbarians,” often in the midst of angry letters to the local paper.
He also had some fascinating and visionary opinions and ideas about growth, mass transit and the livability of urban areas, all of which were quite prescient because Austin was exploding into a rapid growth spurt that doomed grassroots institutions like the Armadillo. Professor Burd was a treasure trove of Austin cultural and political history, too, which made him the perfect faculty adviser for my thesis. After enthusiastically endorsing my proposal, he went on to give me a great deal of help and insight with the project.
In spite of his help, the resulting thesis (windily titled “Music, Media and the Metropolis: The Case of Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters”) was earnest and amateurish, and contemplating it now kind of makes me cringe. Nevertheless, it was a crucial step in getting me on my way to becoming a writer. Decades later, it even came in handy as bonafides for one of my book projects, convincing Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson that I was just the right guy to co-write his memoir.
I’ve always been grateful to Professor Burd for his faith in me, and the fact that he treated me more like a peer than a subordinate even when I was still a student. Some years after I graduated in 1985, I went back to visit him in his office while I was in Austin for South By Southwest. It had been close to 20 years since we’d spoken; but when I walked in, he nodded and began talking to me as if it had been just a few days since our last conversation. That was the year he talked me into being a judge for a journalism contest, helping to decide winners in the feature-writing category for the Texas Press Association (an enlightening and fascinating experience, but not one I’ve been inclined to repeat).
Since Professor Burd never drove, he would walk to campus from his home two-and-a-half miles away every day — including his final day of teaching in the spring of 2014, when he was retiring. That last day, the students from his final UT class made the walk with him, posting pictures with the Hashtag #WeWalkWithBurd. And of course he went right on teaching, same as always. Along the way, the very first stop they made was at the commemorative plaque where the Armadillo World Headquarters used to stand. When I saw the picture afterward, it made me mist up a little because in a small way it felt like I’d been there. And I was, in the same way all his past students were.
So during this Teacher Appreciation Week, here’s to Professor Burd and all the other teachers out there who have made a difference and left a mark. Whether anyone else realizes it or not, there’s nothing more important than what teachers are doing every single day.