As it should be, the teachers who have had the biggest impact on my life are my parents, and I think I'd always been far too selfish and proud to understand that until the last few years of my life (especially since I graduated college). Teaching other people's kids really opens your eyes to the vast range of parent quality out there. Although parents should, of course, always love and support their children, there are so many who have absolutely no clue how; lack the social, financial, and emotional support to; or simply don't care to. But my parents have ALWAYS been there for me, no matter how horribly I treated them.
My father is an adventurer. He's been traveling the globe since long before I was born. My parents lived in South America, Africa, and even Louisiana before I was born. They love adventure and learning new things. My dad worked hard enough to allow our family the privilege of traveling the globe when I was young. We lived in Europe a number of summers, visited practically every state in the US and made a few trips down to Mexico. We visited every museum we could find, watched documentary after documentary, and constantly discussed the news of the day. He also urged me to play sports and take music lessons in violin and piano while I was in elementary and middle school. You can find him listening to NPR (especially A Prarie Home Companion, Fresh Air, and Car Talk) and books on tape just about any day of the year (and yes - now I listen to NPR). My father agreed to pay for me to go on a number of exchange programs overseas and helped me through college. It took me a while to realize the impact of these experiences on my life, but that impact is ENORMOUS. I appreciate the role of quality media in society, subtle differences in culture and their impact on the world, and the wonders of travel and adventure. No school, no matter how good, could have instilled these values in me the way my father did.
And then there's my mother. She's probably the most strong-willed woman I've ever met. She grew up in an outrageously sexist culture and watched her parents pay for her two brothers to go to college while she was denied the opportunity and encouraged instead to get married and have children. She got sick of the unjust culture, found herself in the midst of the bra burning 1960s and 70s and pursued her master's degree into her 50s (a level of education neither of her brothers reached). Growing up, I was constantly reminded of sexism in television commercials, tv shows, movies, and practically every other form of popular culture. (She often suggested a for-females version of the restaurant, Hooters - I'll spare you the name she proposed for it.) She fought a blatant case of racism at the church we were attending in Oak Ridge, TN, and we eventually left the church because of it. From my mother, I acquired a fierce determination to seek social justice in all parts of society. I learned what quiet courage really is - what it takes to fight societal prejudice that is embedded in so much of our culture and in so many of our customs (my peers always thought I was a little weird when I noted that magazines like Maxim were disgusting examples of the objectification of women or when I was the only one in my college Poli Sci 102 class to raise my hand when the professor asked who believed in feminism).
But my parents aren't perfect. They're very human. I didn't really realize this until I was about 22, though. When I was young, I argued with my parents constantly. I think it was largely an effort for me to define my independence and flesh out arguments I had in my head about what was right and what was wrong, but even through all those arguments, I always believed (in the back of my head) that my parents were right and that I was wrong. After I left the house, acculturated myself to the real world and picked up some social skills of my own, I realized that my parents actually were wrong about some things. They made mistakes, very human mistakes. But it didn't make me lose respect for them. Instead, I gained respect. These people aren't perfect; they have selfish desires just like anyone else, but they still chose to give up such a significant part of their lives to ensure that my brother and I would have good lives. Unfortunately, there are so many people out there who don't have parents like that. I'm outrageously lucky.
So this one's for you, Mom and Dad. To the most important teachers: Thanks for everything you've done for my brother and me!