Though you may find terms like “old maids” and “old gals” patronizing and objectionable, I like what Shelby Foote has to say here about teaching. (See my earlier post, “Inspiration.”) One senses that he is sincere and that there is nothing backhanded about the compliment he is paying these women who dedicated themselves to teaching.
I have another video for you. For it to make sense, you need to know that Foote — author of six novels and a celebrated three-part history of the Civil War, about which he was interviewed for Ken Burns’ popular PBS documentary The Civil War — was born and bred in Greenville, Mississippi. In 1930, when both boys were 15 years old, Foote and the future novelist Walker Percy met there. After his father’s suicide, Percy had moved to Greenville with his mother and brothers to join the household of their cousin William Alexander “Will” Percy. The boys became friends and remained close for the remainder of their lives.
It is about this Will Percy that Foote is speaking in the video clip you can watch here. Both writers were profoundly influenced by him. Will Percy was himself a serious poet, a gentleman planter, and author of Lanterns on the Levee, a fine memoir (which nonetheless puts on vivid display his unsavory paternalism, elitism, and white supremacism).
By all accounts, Percy was a formidable man. Walker Percy would later recall the older man this way: “…[H]is eyes were most memorable, a piercing gray-blue and strangely light in my memory, as changeable as shadows over water, capable of passing in an instant, we were soon to learn, from merriment — he told the funniest stories we’d ever heard — to a level gray gaze cold with reproof. They were beautiful and terrible eyes, eyes to be careful around. Yet now, when I try to remember them, I cannot see them otherwise than as shadowed by sadness.”
He was also a man of conviction and kindness. Walker Percy’s mother died two years after the move to Greenville, when her car slid off of an icy bridge into the water. Her youngest son Phinizy was with her. Phin survived the accident but understandably suffered terrible trauma. Later he would remember that night after night, when he was filled with panic and terror, his adoptive father Will Percy would come into his bedroom, talk with him, read aloud to him, comfort him, and stay with him until he could fall asleep.
Walker Percy also attributed “charm” to Will Percy. Others may have used the word “charisma.” And you do get a sense from Percy’s quote of something more than charm, something more compelling and powerful.
All of which is a very roundabout way for me to raise a question: To what extent is the kind of teaching that Foote is describing in the video dependent on personality? In other words, is it only the people with out-sized, magnetic personalities who can create in students that burning desire to explore the world on his or her own? Is inspirational teaching beyond all but the lucky few who are born with the right temperament and abilities?
I suspect that the answer is no. Foote’s remarks on the “old gals” suggests that I may be right in that.
Think of your own favorite and/or most influential teachers. How would you describe them? What did they wear to class each day? What were their mannerisms? How did they interact with students? What did they ask you to do in class, to read, to study? Do you remember particular scenes or special moments?