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The Alchemy of Teaching

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One of the things that defines me is the silver dollar that I carry in my pocket most every day. I’ve been carrying one for the better part of my 16 years as a classroom teacher, and I’ve been fascinated with them since I was a kid and our next door neighbor started giving me one each Halloween while I was trick-or-treating.

There’s just something neat about silver dollars. They’re a great size for flipping and spinning—an important quality in a coin for a fidgety guy like me—and they let you carry history in your hand. My favorites are Peace Silver Dollars. Not only are they a beautiful remembrance of the end of World War I, they were in wide circulation during the Great Depression. When I’m carrying a Peace Silver Dollar, I love to imagine how important that coin probably was to a father struggling to feed his family, or a retiree working to make ends meet during one of the most challenging times in our nation’s history. I’m a bit of a geek that way.

Silver dollars carry an even more important meaning for me today, though. You see, several years ago, I needed a small gift to give to my 8th grade boys basketball players during their final home game. “It’s kind of like our Senior Day,” the girls’ coach explained to me. “I’m giving my girls roses. Do you want me to pick some up for you, too?”

Figuring that my boys would be far less impressed with roses than her girls, I got my eBay on and bought about a dozen Eisenhower Silver Dollars to use as 8th grade gifts instead.

I’ll never forget the impression that those coins made on that first group of boys. “We’re connected by a coin,” I explained in the locker room before our final game. “Each day when I walk the halls flipping my silver dollar, I’m going to have memories of you.”

“And ten years from now, when you find your silver dollar on your bookshelf or in your box of special things, I hope your coin will remind you of our team and the time that we spent together.”

The kids were mesmerized. As egocentric as some middle schoolers may seem, there’s NOTHING more important to a group of athletic boys than their coach and teammates. The thought that they each had a strand to hold onto really seemed to resonate.

Since then, I’ve probably given out something close to 200 silver dollars to students that I’m deeply connected to. The moments are always pretty emotional—both for me and for my students. My silver dollars are a way of saying goodbye to students who are moving on to high school but who want to remember their time in my room—and they’re a way of saying good job to students who’ve taken risks or who have accomplished great things.

They’re a way for me to remember, too. Every time that I find myself flipping my silver dollar—at stoplights, in the hallways after a long day’s work, on the soccer field before a big game—I think of a different student and I smile.

I think of Matt, who couldn’t leave the locker room after his final game at our school because it meant that his time as a member of our team was over. Or of Preston, who wouldn’t come to visit me on the last day of school because he knew how hard saying goodbye was going to be. I think of Caytes, a star athlete who took a part in a school play just so that he could improve his performance and public speaking skills, or of Luke, whose wedding I just attended with my silver dollar buried in my hand as a reminder of who he had once been and a reflection of my role in who he had become.

And while I’ve always suspected that my silver dollars were as important to my students as they are to me, I never had much proof until today. You see, I woke up to the following e-mail in my inbox:

Hey Mr. Ferriter,

It’s Ryan. I was cleaning out my room and again I came across the silver dollar that you gave us. It’s amazing how the littlest memories can hold the highest significance as I look back on my past, and how the people and experiences within these memories have allowed me to become a better person.

It’s almost as if I hide that coin just to find it again the following year, and rekindle all those childhood memories. The coin served your purpose, and that’s truly great.

Last summer I thought about you a few times while I was working at the YMCA. I thought to myself, “One of these days I'm going to see Mr. Ferriter stroll up here to get his workout on.” The silver dollar just reminded me of you and I wanted to catch up.

It’s been a long time since those days playing basketball with all those guys. Being on the team and staying in touch with all my friends along with some funny times after school in your room meant the world to me, and I appreciate you giving me that opportunity.

Beautiful, isn’t it? Gives me chills, actually—and reminds me that this is why I teach.

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