BOSTON - Two facts about teachers are by now abundantly clear:
First, they are undervalued in this culture despite their often extraordinary work inside and outside the classroom.
Second, they never know what has happened to any of their students from the last time they have seen them to the next time they meet.
A perfect example is that of 15-year-old Meaghan Trumwell, who received news that her parents were divorcing on a Tuesday evening shortly after her grandmother's death.
As she said, "I saw it coming but I didn't want to believe it. If you tell yourself something often enough, it, like, sort of doesn't happen. I can do this with my mind; at least it feels like it isn't there anymore, or wherever it goes it won't hurt me. It's like putting a document away on the computer: it may be hard to find, but it's there. The nerds have to come and find it for you."
In this instance, the "nerd" was Helen Lippincott, Meaghan's English teacher, who discreetly let Meaghan know that she would be willing to listen if there was something Meaghan wished to say.
It was as if the teacher had told her that apparently her mind tricks no longer were working.
As Meaghan herself said, "If they worked, you wouldn't be sad and you wouldn't have to cry."
At first, the invitation to unburden herself to her teacher frightened her. Then she thought, "How come Ms. Lippincott wanted to talk to me when all my parents wanted to do was send me to a shrink?"
At first, Meaghan told her teacher nothing was wrong. Then she did what she calls her anger number: "I told her I was getting tired of her trying to dig stuff out of me. Then I did the promising number. `Yeah, I'm coming to talk to you. I swear to God.'"
Then came the Saturday night when Meaghan worked herself into "a mind state." She had been drinking, as she often did on the weekends after her father left the house.
This was the first night her mother had gone out on a date. "She told me it wasn't a date; he was only accompanying her. But I saw them walk to his car. I swear to God I've seen people get sexually transmitted diseases doing less than what they were doing."
Sitting on the bathroom floor, Meaghan cut her wrists and one of her ankles as well. "Pretty smart, huh?"
Her brother found her and called their father. who told him to call 911. Meaghan still refuses to speak to anyone about the hospital experience.
The following week in school, after English class, she paused long enough for Ms. Lippincott to understand she was ready to speak to the one person in the world with whom she felt safe. Careful not to embarrass her, Ms. Lippincott said, "I've seen people cry before, you know. If you cry, I might cry, too, and we might both feel better."
What struck Meaghan was the manner in which her teacher simply waited for her until the time was right.
"She must have known things would have to be horrible before I'd go to her. But she waited; I wish boys could wait that way. I wish my mother was taking her course. She needs to know when you hurt people they just don't come running back. Miss Lippincott thinks of me as just a kid in school who's trying not to make problems for people, except that one time in the bathroom when I couldn't make it another night."
It was Ms. Lippincott who also raised in Meaghan's mind for the first time the pain felt by Meaghan's brother.
"I'll bet you haven't tried to reach out to him," the teacher said. She also confessed to Meaghan to doing horrible things to her own brother when she was younger.
Educator, friend, clinician, guide, the good teacher encounters her students every day with new knowledge, new eyes and perhaps, too, a fresh heart. She remains loyal always to her discipline, to the delicate art that is the act of teaching itself, and alert to the momentary shifts of intellect and mood exhibited by each of her students.
She sees through no one, but as Meaghan observed, she takes the time to attend to her students. "She's the only person who's ever done this. She doesn't have to. When parents don't, it, like, proves no one has to."
True enough, perhaps, but not for the great teachers, regardless of whether a culture properly honors them or not.
Thomas J. Cottle, a clinical psychologist and sociologist, is professor of education at Boston University. His books include "Children's Secrets" (Addison Wesley, 1990) and "Hardest Times," which will be published early next year by Prager.