Something curious happened with those teachers we had, too many years ago. In the jumble of feelings that inspired us, fear and mockery converged, admiration and the desire to parody them. The parody – the clarification is idle – seeks to bait the one to whom, by virtue of his power or his authority, we recognize a superior status. And that was precisely what happened with teachers: they were above us. Many, the majority, were because they had power; but there were a few in which that position of dominance was nothing more than the just correlate to the authority that they transmitted to us.
It is impossible for me to define what that authority consisted of, what it was made of. I suppose that condensing it in the word “charisma” is not enough. It floats like an aura of magic around that word, and the truth is that our nose, apart from an intense suggestion of personality, picked up more tangible ingredients: courage, control of the situation, a certain current of empathy. At that age when one remains mired in the most regrettable of deviations, those figures seemed to us covered with a tutelary shine. They pointed out to us an itinerary that represented the precise reverse of the exuberant hormonal mess of which we were victims at that time. We respected them. And that respect, in which a point of nobility and humility throbbed, ingratiated us with ourselves.
It also happened that they were capable of an unusual achievement: getting a handful of schoolchildren to find meaning in the fact of being in a classroom. As far as I remember, such a prodigy occurred without the need to resort to any pedagogical extravagance; they simply shared with us a portion of what they knew. But in doing so, as important as the content was the way they conveyed it, in an accessible way, no doubt, but raising the flight of their explanations above that coarse and vulgar colloquialism now present in so many areas of public life, and that it is but another of the masks behind which barbarism is concealed.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but what they were doing was filling little by little, with perseverance and the occasional flash of healthy skepticism, the immense emptiness that we harbored. Thanks to them, the world was beginning to be a less enigmatic place. Our memory was populated with data that were like beacons destined to guide us in the middle of the world’s gloom. Each challenge to our capacity for understanding, each challenge with which our will was strengthened, took on the traces of a training that made us fit to face the future roughness of life.
Together with our parents, those teachers were the first people to provide us with a background provided not only with knowledge, but also founded on the basis of perseverance, the desire to set an example, and the determination to make our talents bear fruit. However, and to the extent that the desire to destroy fundamental things has prevailed among us for years, it may be that the theories about self-learning, the esoteric talk about the acquisition of skills and the slogans that affect the contempt of memory have the game won. Perhaps the figure of the teacher as a transmitter of the community heritage and a reference capable of awakening in his students the desire for emulation, is about to become an anachronism. Then I remember the letter that, after receiving the Nobel Prize, Camus wrote to Germain Louis, his primary school teacher. I know of no more simple and beautiful expression of a debt of gratitude: “Without you, without the generous hand that you extended to the poor child that I was, without your teaching and your example, none of this would have happened.”
Read the full letter. They are words that remind us that no virtual trickery, no paraphernalia concocted based on pedagogical rhetoric and emancipatory rhetoric can ever replace the living and authentic testimony of a presence that guides us.