For an awful lot of people who have figured out interesting paths in life, there seems to have been a teacher somewhere along the way who believed in them. I don't mean "believed in them" in some sweet and sentimental way — I mean, believed that they were capable of more than they knew. For me, it was a high school history teacher named Ray Karras, who taught me at Lexington High School in Lexington, Mass.
He was nobody's stereotype of the "favorite teacher," easy on the grades and eager to banter with his young charges. (That was the social studies teacher down the hall, in bell-bottoms and a mustache, who later went to jail for selling drugs.) No, Mr. Karras treated us as if we were, or should be, young academics. He demanded papers that presented well laid-out arguments — long papers! If you asked him to write a college recommendation, he would — but only in a sealed envelope sent straight to the college, and it was well known that sometimes he told them to reject the applicant.
So: A compliment counted. I remember him telling me one day, "You're a good writer." I was used to adults telling me this, but only because I was glib and knew a lot of words and hence was able to get away with a good deal. When Mr. Karras said it, I actually believed it. Doubtless he gave me a B, but doubtless it was worth a good deal more than all the top grades I ever got.
Bill McKibben is an author, educator and environmentalist.