Newton, Autographs, and the Teacher

My son sent me an e-mail from Williams College the other day. In the message, he shared that he went to the Rare Books Library on campus and took out a copy of Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica written by Sir Isaac Newton. This is the text in which Newton came up with his laws of motion and gravity, the orbits of the planets, and so much more. This edition was from the 1700’s. My son was amazed to have this famous work in his hands. It may have been an original copy. I imagine he was awe-struck .

I would have been.

About twenty-two years ago, my In-Laws took my wife and I on a remarkable trip to California. On that trip we saw many great and historical sites.  Among the sites we saw was Grauman’s Chinese Theater. This is the unique place in Hollywood with all of the hand prints from the stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

My big thrill there was searching for and finding the Marx Brothers and putting my hand in the spot where Harpo Marx’s hand had been.  I have always enjoyed Harpo Marx.  He radiates kindness and love.  There is something about his personality that always warms my heart.  And, of course, also makes me laugh.

Now, Harpo Marx was not quite the intellectual that Isaac Newton was (one could also argue that Isaac Newton wasn’t half as funny as Harpo), but I can understand the thrill my son experienced by having the opportunity to “interact” with that centuries old text. Through that book, my son was making a very real connection to Sir Isaac Newton himself.

There is something uniquely human about wanting to touch and interact with a historical artifact. These are ways that an ordinary person connects to someone or something great – something bigger than themselves.  This is a major reason why we frequent museums and historical places.

I also believe that is the original allure of autographs. An autograph provides tangible proof that, at least for that moment, a famous person was sharing time and space with you. This gives the ordinary person a very real connection with the famous. The autograph, in a sense, makes the ordinary person, somewhat less ordinary.

(This classic Brady Bunch scene captures this idea extremely well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9wQcCIN3lw.)

In fact, over the years, there have been people who became noteworthy in large part because they have interacted with the famous.

Barry Halper was one such example. Halper, for a time, had a collection of baseball memorabilia, including autographs, that was said to rival the collection gathered in the Baseball Hall-of-Fame itself. Halper was famous, not for what he did, but for the size of the collection he gathered.

Today we see this same dynamic on the many television shows about collectors or the stores they own. All one needs to do is watch a few minutes of any episode of “pickers” or “sellers” to see people trying to connect with others who were more famous.

The desire to connect with someone else – someone more important than ourselves is a very real human phenomenon.

In the world of education, those important people, of course, are the teachers.

Teachers are the grown-ups who make a difference. These are the “big” people who bring joy, happiness, and love to children. Teachers are the adults who share knowledge and the love of learning with others. They are true heroes.

Throughout the school year, children actually want “autographs,” from their teachers. These autographs are the simple words that teachers leave on the tops of papers or through other means. Sometimes the “autograph” students want most is a sticker or a smiley face. Or a just a smile.  These are well-earned tokens that denote approval and achievement.

Words like, “Great Job” and “I am proud of you” (written or otherwise) are treasured in the hearts of the children. These words affirm the work the child does – and like hand prints on sidewalks, relics, or autographs, they bring the child closer to the person they admire – their teacher.

I sometimes sit in awe of the tremendous power a teacher possesses – the tremendous impact that a teacher has on a child’s self-image now – and in the future. A teacher can use his autograph, the imprint he leaves on a child, to change a life. The positive words teachers leave inspire children to work harder, to give more, and to always strive to be their better selves.

Although they might not have the cash value of an item in a collector’s shop, I honestly believe that the words, “You did GREAT! I am PROUD of you. Love – Your Teacher,” will always be more valuable than any historical relic.  Significantly more valuable.

Teachers can be the biggest heroes of them all. When they do the job correctly, when they give of themselves, when they use their role to inspire and motivate children, teachers are greater than Joe Namath. They’re greater than Sir Isaac Newton. They are even greater than Harpo Marx – and that says a lot!

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