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Friday, February 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 15.0° F  Fair
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Goodbye, Mr. Gibson
How do you thank someone who sees potential in your child?

Our daughter transformed into an East High graduate last Friday night. Change is a long time coming, but when it arrives, when you look out your front window at the young woman pulling into the driveway, it happens in a flash.

One of the biggest changes Maggie experienced happened during her senior year.

I'd like to take credit for it but I can't. Though she's always done well in school, Maggie finally came to see herself as a student. Though she has an elementary teacher and a university professional as parents, this change was nurtured away from the house. It came in the best of all possible ways: from a teacher.

I first heard his name during dinner last October as the school year got under way.

"Do you think there will be an Israeli offensive on Gaza this fall?" she asked. "Why?" I asked. "We're studying the region in Mr. Gibson's class."

Most teens don't do small talk. If a high-schooler mentions something to a parent it means it's something that, for better or worse, is taking root. It's why experts talk so much about the importance of parents listening to teens.

A week passed. Professor Maggie now spoke to me from the couch.

"One of the biggest misconceptions in the U.S. is that the problem between Israel and Palestine is an ancient conflict. But even with the complexities of religion, the current trouble in the region is relatively new. Within the last 70 years. What do you know about it, Dad?"

I felt exposed. I don't know jack about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. State government? I'm there. Congressional domestic policy? Just ask. Foreign affairs? New category, Trebek.

Not long thereafter, papers on the topic began to appear on my bed stand, neatly placed atop the pile of half-read novels and biographies. There were papers from the Middle East Research and Information Project. Articles from The American Conservative. Printouts from The New York Times. A teacher is as good as his or her curriculum, and these sources revealed Mr. Gibson ran an across-the-board approach to a complicated subject.

He revealed something else, too. The only thing better than creating enthusiasm for knowledge in a person is creating the desire to share it. Mr. Gibson accomplished both of these things, and it wasn't even Halloween yet.

Of course, if sources and curriculum were the only way to define an excellent teacher, 80% of the district's professionals would fit the bill.

So in addition to seeing Maggie's transformation with my own eyes, last week, as the minutes clicked down to her commencement, I asked her why she thought Mr. Gibson was so good at his job. She told me a story that happened last fall - barely four weeks into the semester.

Maggie missed the deadline for one of Mr. Gibson's paper assignments. The next morning, as she helped set up the East gym for a pep rally, she looked up. "Mr. Gibson was charging across the floor toward me," Maggie says. "He marched straight up to me and was really upset."

"Listen," he said. "I am not gonna set you up to mess up in college."

"I don't even know how he found me," Maggie remembered. "He saw that I hadn't turned my paper in, sought me out and confronted me. That's when I realized the potential he saw in me, the respect he had for me, and how much he cared."

When asked, Maggie is as verbal about Mr. Gibson as she is on just about any other topic. She says Gibson is the kind of teacher who asks his students to challenge him. "Am I making sense to you guys? Are you doing okay?" he'll ask.

It may surprise you to know that I've never met Mr. Gibson. It surprises me, particularly since I feel like I know him. He's helped positively shape my daughter in ways I couldn't. Maggie now better understands why knowledge matters. Her experience in Mr. Gibson's class has helped her see how a single person can make a difference to another person in an indifferent world. I believe Maggie will remember Mr. Gibson for these precise reasons.

It's graduation time, a time when parents are grateful for the accomplishment and safe arrival of their son or daughter. As I write this I look forward to shaking Mr. Gibson's hand at commencement, looking him in the eye and telling him, "Thank you." I expect he'll see it as all in a day's work.

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