I have known Bill Plitt since the late-1960s when I hired him to teach social studies as part of a federally-funded teacher training program located at Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C. We have been close friends ever since. Plitt has directed teacher education programs, taught history for many years in Northern Virginia high schools and has traveled to Israel many times to work with Arab and Israeli citizens seeking peaceful solutions on the West Bank. I asked him to write this post after he told me about the “timeless story.”
Upon reflection of a career in teaching that spanned nearly 50 years, I realize the many ways in which one can teach (and learn). Classroom teaching in Belize as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the early 60s led to an internship through Howard University at Cardozo High School in DC in that same decade. After that, many years were spent working with teachers in their pre-service preparation and with classroom teachers in their in-service courses, and after a return to the classroom for 12 years until my official retirement, I felt most days were gifts to me.
More specifically, as I look back to the hundreds of students of all shapes and sizes who came into my life, and I hear from them about those moments that meant the most to them, it was not the content of what I had been teaching (somewhat to my chagrin) that they remembered. It was, instead, those experiences found in the deeper realm of caring. To this point, I would say of my own experience as a student through the years that it was those teachers who cared about me that I remember the most.
For many years, I used a now popular book called “I’ll Love You Forever” by Robert Munsch. I’ve used it with hundreds of groups, from gatherings of three (father, mother, baby) to several hundred in church and school settings. I shared it with nearly every class of high school students I taught as well as every teacher group I led since 1987. It is a timeless story – the story that always draws listeners into it, for it speaks to us all, regardless of age or position. Some hear it more personally than others. No doubt many of you have read and shared this story with students and children of your own. The refrain repeated through the life of a child by the parent is a simple one:
“I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always.
As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.”
Early on I put the verse to music and taught the simple lyrics to the audiences, small and large, so that they could participate in the telling through their own mantras and music.
Over the years, I heard from many of my former students about their memory of hearing that story. One in particular stands out. In 2000, I was leading a “school-within-a-school program” in a high school in Northern Virginia. It was a special program that offered support for incoming 9th grade students who were labeled (mostly incorrectly) as “At Risk.” (Actually, I believe that most 9th graders may fit that burdensome name for numerous reasons.)
On the first day of a new school year, and after taking care of the many house-keeping chores teachers were required to do at that time, I would end my class by reading this story and teaching them the verse. As I did then, and would do every year from 1987 on, I would read those last words of the story, often bringing a powerful moment of silence and, for some, tears. After reading the story, we often felt connected in new and wonderful ways without using words. You might have felt similar moments in your own classroom experiences as you began to see your students, and they to see you as their teacher, in new and wonderful ways. Our time together, no doubt, took a positive route from the very beginning because of that effect I sensed then; I can still feel it today.
At the end of that class in 1987, a student waited rather impatiently, but cautiously, until all of other students had left, before saying to me, “Mr. Plitt. That was the most beautiful story I have ever heard. I am going to share it with my parents.” Now, this student had been labeled as difficult in the 8th grade, labeling which I generally dismissed at the beginning of the school year and continued to withhold judgment on throughout the rest of the year. In retrospect, that exchange at the end of the class changed us both in wonderful ways. We had nothing to prove to each other for the rest of that year. WE had connected as caring people.
Later, that student kept in touch with me. He was awarded a scholarship upon graduation from high school, and throughout his continuing studies that led to a degree in business, we stayed in contact. After working with neighborhood teenage boys for some time, who probably reflected his own school experiences, he decided to return to graduate school and completed a degree in counseling. A year later, he was hired as a counselor to work with students with special needs in a local high school.
He connected with me on Facebook, as many others have over the years through some form of social media. Underneath a picture of him, in which he held a copy of “I’ll Love You Forever,” he wrote, “I have my own copy now!” He let me know that he had shared the story and song with his “special needs” students who had the same reaction to it as he had experienced.
It was truly a gift that keeps on giving. I wonder how many others who crossed the threshold of my classrooms have done the same thing with this little book that shows the simple power of love and caring.
Some years ago, when I thanked Bob for producing this book, he said, “I never planned on it being a book that would sell. My publisher said I’d be lucky to sell 1,000 copies.” The first year, it would sell 100,000 copies. In subsequent years, he sold a million copies and has done so ever since then. It has also been translated into a wide variety of languages. Personally, I’ve used the Spanish version with mothers in small villages in Mexico as well as with Arab women in Palestine. They all get it! Bob also said in a return letter to me that he and his wife were never able to have children of their own, and they even lost two still-born babies. I believe that their story reaches many of us even more deeply because of that personal sense of loss. They passed on their own love and sense of caring as a gift to others.
I must note in light of this classroom discovery of the gift that never stops giving and stressing the “habits of the heart”, I also gave my students the opportunity to apply the skills of a historian and a geographer to the content of the curriculum. I owed this approach to instruction from the early days as an intern teacher in the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching, and practiced and refined this approach in my role as a teacher over the next four decades.