His students gasp, laugh, shake their heads, lean forward and ask, “How?” Jeffrey Wright is not just a high school teacher in Louisville, Kentucky. He is also the consummate entertainer. Watching him makes me think of a friend’s description of the four levels of storytelling: entertainment, education, spirituality, shamanism. Each level takes the listener deeper. At the fourth level, only someone called to the spiritual life can handle the forces that might be unleashed. At the first level, minds are opened to the messages that follow. Without that first level, students are not attentive enough to learn. But Wright leads them into the third level as well, the level at which they can explore the big questions in life.
Thanks to a talented young filmmaker, Zack Conkle, and Tara Parker-Pope at the New York Times, we have a chance to watch Wright in action. Beneath the skilled physics teacher and wacky performer is a man with a heart so full of love his students emerge from his classes transformed.
Outside the classroom, Wright and his wife are parents to two children, the younger of whom has the rare, debilitating Joubert syndrome. The challenges of caring for his son and his own loving nature have made Wright open to the issues his students face, coming from homes with every possible stumbling block to a happy life.
Wright’s physics lessons don’t just evoke a sense of wonder in his students. They also evoke profound questions about the meaning of life. By sharing the stories of his son, whose intelligence is trapped in a body that does not take orders from his brain, Wright models a kind of vulnerability that makes it possible for normally adult-shy teens to trust him.
In Conkle’s touching documentary, Wright tells his students it was his daughter Abbie who, at the age of four, taught the Wrights their little boy had a rich inner life they knew nothing about. Abbie was playing dolls, with her little brother in the middle of them. He was giving the dolls the occasional swipe. They had thought he was blind and unreachable. Abbie showed them he could see. He could play. Wanting to enter into dialog with their son, they taught him sign language. And one day he signed, “Daddy, I love you.”
As Wright tells the story to his students, they lean toward him, rapt. Then he says to them, “There is something a lot greater than energy. There’s something a lot greater than entropy. What’s the greatest thing?”
The students know the answer, “Love.”
Love is what Wright showers on his young charges. He is one of those rare teachers whose students are changed forever, not just because they learn physics from him but because they are transformed by his willingness to be vulnerable. He gives me hope.
Check out Zack Conkle’s work, and meet a young filmmaker with a bright career ahead of him. Be sure to watch his film about a woman marrying at the age of 100, to a younger man, 87. You can follow him on Facebook.