Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Why I Teach


At the beginning of each school year, my school taps three or four faculty members to talk on this subject: Why I Teach. I was chosen this year, and this is the talk I gave last night. The picture is from my senior year of high school - I had won a writing award. L-R: Mr. Burnette (English), Mr. Shirley, aka The Wolfman (principal), me, Mr. Neville (English).

During my junior year of high school, Pink Floyd’s rock opera album The Wall was released. As everyone knows, one of the songs from that album, “Another Brick in the Wall,” became a monster hit. The famous lines from that song go

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teacher leave them kids alone
Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone.

Of course, the lyrics were a specific complaint, based on experience, against abusive teachers in British boarding schools, and even if you hadn’t lived through that nightmare, it wasn’t hard to imagine your way into the speaker’s anger. But my agemates tended to hear those lyrics as an indictment of school in general. They shook their fists and shouted “we don’t need no education” with snarling outrage. If that was the revolution they were for, then I couldn’t support it. Though I shook my fist like everybody else, in my heart I was a loyalist. It was deeply embarrassing, but I just could not embrace the militancy of those lyrics.

Why did perfectly natural adolescent school hating feel so unnatural to me? Because on the whole, I loved school. Well, that's an overstatement.  I didn't love everything about school - ask anyone who ever tried to teach me math or science - but I certainly revered the idea of school way too much to renounce it in song.  And that sense of reverence came mostly from the nature of my own education.

I am a 1981 graduate of Cedar Shoals High School in Athens, so my high school education took place in a college town, mostly in the late seventies. Coming of age in that era had its drawbacks – schlocky music, preposterous clothing, that post-Watergate-post-Vietnam-energy-crisis-double-digit-inflation malaise bringing everybody down, and we teenagers had to endure the tiresome nostalgia of the preceding generation, grumbling about how much cooler everything had been ten years before. But it wasn’t a bad time to be in school. Public school teachers in general had more autonomy in those days, and in that particular time and place there was a gracious plenty of autonomy for inventive teachers who knew how to use it. I had several such teachers. Mr. Burnette taught creative writing. For his class I wrote a short story in which the Joker used a Dear Abby column to triumph over Batman. Mrs. Longman taught a humanities course called “Social History of the 1920s.” I wrote a research paper for that course on Sacco and Vanzetti, the two Italian immigrants who were unjustly convicted of murder due to their ethnicity and anarchist political beliefs. In 1927 they went to the electric chair and became political martyrs. The title of my paper was, “Sacco and Vanzetti: How and Why the Two Italian Anarchists Were Executed.” My friend Alec pointed out that the “how” part of my title was kind of stupid. The executioner just pulled the switch, right? Nonetheless, Mrs. Longman liked my paper – I had covered the “why” part pretty well - and it remains the most intensely pursued research project of my academic career. Total absorption. I didn’t want it to end. Mr. Reeves taught an entire course on the Vietnam War, just four years after the fall of Saigon. There was no textbook: we watched videos, read articles, listened to music. That list may not sound special now, but it was in 1979. Later, Mr. Reeves was my teacher for an independent study course on the early history of Christianity. Bill Reeves was my most influential teacher, particularly in something he did that I doubt he’s aware of: he made me believe I could be a high school teacher. I do not dare to seriously compare myself with Mr. Reeves – we’re talking about an honest-to-God Eagle Scout vs. a Cub Scout dropout – but the way he went about his business looked to me like something I could legitimately aspire to. Far from being one of those larger-than-life Hollywood teachers, he was low key. But he plainly treasured the content that he was teaching, he was smart, he was engaged with us, and his way of gathering and presenting the material and the thought-provoking work he assigned all suggested a pedagogical impresario. His agenda was not to make himself a star but to give us a rich experience. He knew how to make a classroom pulsate with meaning.

I’ve talked about my teachers and my classes, but, as is the case with young people now, the extracurricular, underground stuff that was churning around among my agemates was perhaps more important in influencing my future. There was the magic of unassigned reading. Chapters 3 and 4 of Silas Marner might have been due Tuesday, but we were going to read Vonnegut instead. Or Salinger or Kafka or Tolkien. And be proud of it. My visionary friend Alec organized lunchtime matches of a brand new sport, ultimate Frisbee. The games were twenty on a side and played in a small space, chaotic huckfests that by some miracle did not result in trips to the emergency room. I played ultimate there for the first time. Before long we had something like a team, and Alec had contacted some guys who were playing at the other high school, Clarke Central, and one day there we were at the UGa football practice fields, competing in what may well have been the first interscholastic ultimate match ever played in the state of Georgia. At the beginning of my sophomore year there was a serious misunderstanding about editorship of the student newspaper, Excalibur. Two very talented boys had been led to believe the job was theirs. I was on good terms with both of them, Johnny and Jay. Johnny was a brash character, an audacious son of the working class who was going to make himself heard in an environment dominated by arrogant, entitled professors’ kids. Johnny was chosen to be editor. Jay felt a promise had been broken, so he started his own newspaper. He was a special young man: staggeringly intelligent, witty, warm, responsible, and when he chose to turn on the gravitas, you thought you were in the presence of Walter Cronkite’s illegitimate son. The paper he launched to compete with Excalibur, the Cedar Shoals Press, was not the underground radical newspaper out of a school principal’s nightmares. It looked and read like something that wanted to be the New York Times when it grew up. It ran articles on subjects like a Ralph Nader investigation of standardized testing. The fortunate thing for me was that for a brief time I was able to publish in both newspapers. I specialized in juvenile imitations of Art Buchwald columns. For the Press I satirized teachers who assigned purple sheet busywork. For Excalibur I wrote a series of mock proposals for what do with the abandoned parking garage downtown. When the Press published my parody of the Excalibur music critic’s self-indulgent record reviews, Johnny had had enough of my two-timing. I came home from school one day to find him waiting for me in my driveway. I had to choose, he said. I chose the Press, which folded a month later. That’s journalism.

In some ways, the seventiesness of my high school education disserved me. At times the impulse to trust students drifted into laxity of supervision. It was too easy to get away with things. I was able to arrange a senior year for myself that even Jeff Spicoli would have found insufficiently demanding. By the time I started college I was a stranger to academic rigor – a stranger to responsible behavior, really - and the results were not pretty. I also have to say that even at its best, Cedar Shoals was not some progressive paradise out of the fantasies of John Dewey. It retained many of the noxious qualities of the industrial-model American high school, especially its Southern manifestation. Our sense of institutional worthiness was way too dependent on the performance of our football team, and though the school was racially integrated, you would never have known it to see homogeneity of the population enrolled in advanced classes. But on the whole Cedar Shoals served me well, both officially and unofficially. Between allowing me to immerse myself in research topics I loved and write for two newspapers and experience Mr. Reeves’ great teaching and play frenzied ultimate, the school was generous to me. So I could not bring myself to sing along when Pink Floyd seemed to denounce education. We don’t need no education? Speak for yourself. When I became a high school teacher, the liveliness and richness of the best of my experience at Cedar Shoals served as my conception of the way school is supposed to be, for everybody, not just for people like me. That conception has never really left me.

But I did not leave Cedar Shoals planning to become a high school teacher. It never crossed my mind. I would have considered it beneath me. I was going to be a sportswriter, or a historian. Or maybe both. Wouldn’t that have been cool? It wasn’t until much later, when I was at the University of Georgia, staggering towards an undergraduate degree in English literature and my half-baked career ambitions looking more remote all the time, that I turned my eyes toward the blackboard jungle.

By that time it was just a matter of going into the family business. That’s a glib explanation for my career choice, but there’s some truth in it. My parents were both teachers. Neither of them explicitly encouraged me to follow in their footsteps, but they were preparing me for this work all the time, whether they knew it or not. My mother was a school librarian. She was the sort of librarian who wanted to see her collection move rather than petrify. Her passion extended to her personal life: she kept her sons in books, good ones, and she has done the same for her grandchildren. As is the case with many sons, it took me way too long to realize how blessed I have been in my mother. I was one of those kids who had a new geeky passion every month, and rather than treating my interests as inconveniences, Mom indulged them. Once I became very interested in Thomas Jefferson, but I got him confused with Superman, so Mom made me a cape with “TJ” on the back. So I would fly around the yard leaping tall buildings in a single bound and holding these truths to be self-evident. I was also interested in dirigibles. And baseball cards. And the Czars of Russia. And whales. Mom set me up every time, especially when it came to whales. I had every whale book from the Clarke County Public Library checked out. I learned the names and salient features of all the great whales and made meticulous study of all the pictures in the books. Mom was not in a position to enable me to see a living whale, but I recall a summer afternoon when she took me to a traveling exhibit in the parking lot at Sears. This guy had a baby sperm whale frozen in a block of ice in a semi trailer, and he was driving around the country charging customers to come inside and have a look. Mom bought my ticket and I got to see a frozen whale. It was like one of the ice cubes with a plastic bug frozen inside. Only twenty feet long. And a whale. Trust me, if you want to experience the majesty of the cetacean, it is better to see the beluga at the Georgia Aquarium. Still, that frozen whale remained in my memory, not only because it was such an unsettling sight but because of what Mom was teaching me about how to spend my days. Go see the whale! Mom endowed me with an active orientation toward learning I still adhere to when I’m at my best. However, when I went off to college, it was Mom who said, “If you want to be a teacher, you can pay for your own education.” I hadn’t even mentioned teaching as a career possibility, but at that time Mom was at the tail end of a particularly bitter experience with a change in administration at her school. Most public school teachers go through a time when they can’t imagine a line of work more soul crushing, and Mom was having one of those times. She needn’t have worried, anyway. Teaching was not on my radar. I was going to be a historian. Or a sportswriter. Or both.

My father didn’t counsel me one way or the other about becoming a teacher, but he would have been the one to do it. He taught for twenty years in the department of Language education at UGa. Yes, he trained high school English teachers, though not this one, at least not explicitly. He was certainly my mother’s partner in nurturing my interests. Perhaps his major contribution in that area was something he did for me when I was 11 or 12: he got me a subscription to Mad magazine. The silly, irreverent, incisive brand of humor I found in the pages of Mad not only gave me hours of laughs but insinuated itself into my worldview, for life, as it did for countless others of my generation. Neil Postman, one of my favorite educational gurus, used to say that one of the most valuable things schools can do for students is furnish them with built in, shock proof crap detectors. I share his belief – it is part of my mission - and I’m grateful to my father for introducing me to Mad, the source of my own crap detector.

Pop died while I was still a floundering undergraduate, not thinking beyond the next ultimate tournament, let alone a career, so we never had any sort of discussion about my choice to become a high school English teacher. His opinion would have mattered to me. A few years after Pop died, I was talking with the last doctoral candidate he had advised about the feelings he had inspired in the two of us. “Nothing was ever good enough,” she said. She did not mean that he was excessively demanding, but that his character was such that you wanted to transcend yourself in work you presented to him. I think that is about right where my father is concerned. In the introduction to one of his novels Kurt Vonnegut wrote that he had always secretly written for his sister. He wrote, "Any creation which has any wholeness or harmoniousness, I suspect, was made by an artist or inventor with an audience of one in mind." Pop never saw me teach, didn’t even know I wanted to teach, but I believe that whatever good I’ve been able to do as a teacher is largely due to the inspiration that the thought of him as an audience provides for me.

I have to admit this: There is something psychologically fishy about the timing of my decision to become a teacher. Consider this: an accomplished figure in his profession is struck down prematurely. Shortly thereafter, his son foregoes other paths he might have pursued in order to carry on his father’s work. The son will vindicate his father, perhaps even surpass him. The Prince Hal / George W. Bush / Dale Earnhardt Jr. / Michael Corleone storyline. But that’s not why I became a teacher. Far from it. I wasn’t Michael Corleone. I was no account Fredo. I made up my mind to pursue high school teaching because I was at a loss for what else to do. My undergraduate career had been undistinguished, to say the least. I didn’t think I had many options. Teaching felt like a retreat into the security of the known. Almost every adult in my life was in education. My father was a professor – we socialized with his colleagues and their families. Almost all of my school friends were faculty brats, too. Well into my adulthood I took it for granted that I had grown up in a rather cosmopolitan environment, and maybe I did, but when it came to giving me an up-close view of alternative career possibilities – well, I might as well have grown up in a mill village, waiting to take my place in the weave room. Yes, there were farsighted, industrious kids who would pursue careers in other fields – the son of one my father’s colleagues is now the organist at Fenway Park, for example - but I had been neither far-sighted nor industrious.

So there was no thunderbolt, no epiphany that made me a teacher. Two things did the job: a lackluster undergraduate career combined with vocational provincialism. So there I was in the autumn of 1988, enrolled in a teacher education program at the University of Tennessee. I thought, “Well, here you are. You have squandered the chance to do anything else. This will have to do.” I worked hard and tried to be enthusiastic, not wanting to repeat my undergraduate mistakes, but all along I brooded that this was not what I had been meant for. That’s a common experience of young adulthood, this sense that things were supposed to have been different. Shakespearean scholar Michael Neill has observed that one reason for Hamlet’s enduring popularity is that audiences can identify with this aspect of the prince’s struggle: he has been presented with a mission he’s ill-suited for and doesn’t want. He’s a scholar, a thinker, not a killer, but killing is what he has to do. Neill writes that one of Hamlet’s implicit messages is one that audiences understand very well: “The story of our lives is always the wrong story.”

Back in 1988, as I prepared to become a teacher, I felt that I was in the wrong story. But I wasn’t. It was never perfectly, organically right – I’m not a natural - but it was as close to right as I could ever hope for. And I believe it was the experiences I have spoken of that first made me believe it could be right. The question that torments every new teacher – “How am I supposed to do this?” – tormented me severely, but between my schooling and my upbringing, I had a wealth of experience to light the way for me. And in all of my private disappointment about where life had taken me, I had failed to anticipate the most wonderful challenge and the most wonderful pleasure of this work: kids. The millennial teenager: not the prettified, eye-rolling, plugged-in, wisecrack machine we see in the media, but someone whose character is much more varied, more complicated, more surprising, more abundant, more fascinating. It didn’t take many days among such teenagers for me to realize how wrong I had been in believing that teaching was something to settle for. It was my duty to live up to teaching, not the other way around.