Most everyone who attended Erie High School during the 38 years he held court in his upstairs corner classroom had the pleasure of spending at least a year learning English under the tutelage of “Luds.” If you had particularly literary leanings, or definite college ambitions, you’d probably find yourself in his classes through multiple semesters, mesmerized by the classics and contemporary works alike, and probably loving every second of it. We’d somehow hit the teacher jackpot in our tiny Illinois farm town, privileged to study under enthusiastic and skilled educators who cared deeply about teaching and the students who filled their classes. As in any school, every teacher had their pets and many enjoyed a “favored status” among certain students. And, of course, even teachers revered by some were reviled by others, but somehow respect and admiration for “Luds” was nearly universal; William Ludwig at the top of virtually everyone’s “favorite teachers” list.
“Luds” taught with a mix of empathy and expectation; he understood we were kids struggling with difficult material, at difficult and distractible ages, and the works of Shakespeare and Steinbeck, Homer and Hesse could stretch the patience and comprehension of young minds already pulled in multiple directions. Still, he expected us to rise to his frequent challenges, demanding effort and participation (everyone sat exposed in his class), and drew out our best. Still, he was hardly a taskmaster, preferring humor and encouragement to lead us to learning.
“Luds” was featured just last week in a news story that went viral-on-a-small-scale among the social media pages of his many former students. Now 80 years old and long-retired from Erie High, he is still the consummate English teacher, but now as a volunteer in a third-grade special education classroom helping young special needs students learn reading comprehension. So valuable are his contributions and so gifted his style that he was recently awarded Bi-County Cooperative Foundation Unsung Hero award for his volunteer work. His most valuable contribution, according to the classroom teacher he assists, is that “he’s really awesome with making the kids feel good about themselves.”
And that about sums up why he was such a beloved teacher to four decades of high school students: He had certain defining moments were what made us feel good about ourselves, our capacity to learn, and the power of our reasoning – his gentle teasing, occasional (but always good natured) sarcasm, an encouraging smile, or furrowed brow that let us know he understood what we were thinking in a classroom discussion but encouraged going deeper. His defining moments were subtle but constant, consistently Bill Ludwig. And that opened us up to learning a lot of great literature.
What have been your defining moments as a cop?
Rather than thinking in terms of big cases, a current (or favorite) assignment, or any single event that established your title or place within your department that defines you by role, try instead to look at those touchstones that illuminate not merely what your are or do, but the character you bring and how it influences the way you serve your community. A defining moment is often thought of as a single, stand-alone event that brings clarity and meaning to an individual within the framework of a larger social construct. But this single point of definition seems inadequate; we are all much more and much greater, after all, than can be captured in any single moment, and to define who we are personally or professionally in the context of such limited information shortchanges us.
The nature and depth of character you bring to the job will likely be displayed time and again through your actions and words, influencing how you serve and fashioning a distinguishable pattern reflecting your level of dedication and commitment to your oath, and the degree of empathy you have for others. This is why we talk about defining moments in the plural rather than singular sense. How you are defined as a cop and a person will transcends any single act or word. Real legacies are built over time, and on a broad and sturdy foundation. The defining moments that comprise that foundation, and the legacy it supports, may be small and seemingly inconsequential in the big picture but to the individuals touched by each moment they are probably very powerful.
Very often we in law enforcement become disillusioned, our idealism fades quickly in the face of the basest human nature we’re tasked to confront, and the simple hope we can make a difference is abandoned. Disillusion leads to burnout and depression. We start giving less and less to the job and question our place in the world. For many of us, our words and demeanor become harsh, our attitude cynical; these become our defining moments to the citizens we encounter and colleagues with whom we work, and as defining moments go, they are less than exemplary.
If your defining moments as a cop – and a person – have become marked by such harshness and cynicism then it’s time to readjust. Keep the big picture in sight but don’t focus on your failure to “change the world” or the pathetic souls who simply refuse to turn around despite your impeccable words of wisdom. You do deal with the basest of human nature, after all, but there are surely plenty of people you’ve helped and who appreciate it, crimes solved because of your diligence and dedication, and lives touched that are better because of you.
Focus instead on the little corners of the world you’ve helped clean up, even if appreciation wasn’t immediately forthcoming, and keep cleaning up corners. Allow for the satisfaction to be intrinsic. Think in terms of how your words and actions right her and right now will define me – and the police in general – to whomever stands before you, whether victim, suspect, witness, or simply some random citizen standing next to you in line for coffee. The totality of your words, actions, and demeanor are the defining moments of your career and the do have an impact in this world.
Be judicious with them, and how you want to be thought of and remembered – even in your own mind.