I live in small-town South Georgia, where we have to drive long distances to see quality movies. In the 1980s, my childhood friend Laura’s cultured mother drove her daughters to Jacksonville, Florida, monthly, where they would watch three movies in succession, then report back to us.
Though lacking Laura’s background, I have always watched the Oscars. I like the glamour, the genuine emotion, the chance to see another, far-away world.
When the joyous winners leap up the steps, I inevitably weep, thinking of their teachers. The men and women who tried to corral their energetic charges while simultaneously leaving their spirits intact; who, remembering daily what it was like to be young, gave guidance with dignity and compassion; who bought snacks when these now-tuxedo-clad adults were hungry youngsters; who encouraged and cajoled during quick hallway conferences, saying things like, “Really, Casey, you have amazing talent. No, I’m not just saying that to be nice.”
I think of these teachers, who have sown much and are too often forgotten. I imagine them, in the weeks before the Oscars, sitting at the beauty parlor saying things like, “Oh, you know, Emma Stone was in my English class. Sweet, sweet girl.” I picture them putting their charges’ names on Sunday School prayer lists; carefully cutting out Oscar newspaper articles; telling their current students, “Viggo hated history, too, but he studied and did well, and Sunday night, 40 million people are going to watch him on TV.”
I picture these teachers in their frayed recliners and modest homes, DVRs carefully set, their forewarned children and spouses giving them a wide berth because Mom is watching one of her favorite all-time kids.
I can hear the screams when their favorite’s name is called. I see them dancing, arms in the air, yelling, “He did it! He did it!” and cackling with delight.
For a moment, these exultant educators forget the sorrows that come with teaching, all of the lack and sacrifice. For this moment, they are rich. They have done it. They have changed a life, pushed one child past the most awesome of finish lines.
Tonight, when Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor, as the camera rose high behind him and the clapping throng rose to their feet, Mr. Ali stood tall and confident at centerstage. I felt tears forming. His teachers, seeing this.
And then, Mr. Ali spoke. In the first speech of Hollywood’s most important night, the first people he thanked were teachers. “I want to thank my teachers, my professors . . .I had so many wonderful teachers. Zelda Fichandler, Ron Van Lieu, Ken Washington.”
He spoke their names. He felt their weight. In his acknowledgement of those who unknowingly readied him for a long-distant February night, Mr. Ali reminded us all to remember that we do not reach our goals alone.
As he stood onstage, one man speaking directly to millions, Mr. Ali recalled the men and women who helped him find his voice.
He thanked them first; he thanked them clearly.
It was, perhaps, surprising: teachers are not friends. Not family. But sometimes, they are the first to see the spark–to train pupils how to heft it, to convince them that they are worthy to carry it.
And so, while the world sees only the now-tuxedoed glory, fully ablaze, it is fitting to shout the names of those who remember those long-past days–
The days before the fire.