Wistful

This fall will be the first or perhaps the second since 1964 when I will not be in a classroom. As a student or as a teacher.

 

Circa 1985, at a year-end party for high-school faculty

Circa 1988, at a year-end party for high-school faculty

 

I could say that I am terrified. But let’s say instead that I am already feeling wistful.

 

I had to think in ways I never had before.

 

In 1984, when I was 24 years old, I dropped out of law school. I had been very unhappy there. Yes, I was a good student and had done very well in my first year. As the great-grandson, grandson, son, brother, and brother-in-law of lawyers, I had then and have now an immense respect for them and for the practice of law itself.

 

This course challenged students to think for themselves.

 

It wasn’t for me, though. I felt that I was betraying myself somehow. The kind of legal practice that my father had in our small hometown seemed to me noble. He was a counselor to families in their times of need. In contrast, my sense was that the big-city firms, like the one I worked for as a summer associate in 1984, exist primarily to comfort the powerful and well-heeled.

 

No question was a silly question. He was always willing to clarify.

 

When I decided not to return to law school, I had to scurry to find work, since for the first time in 19 years, I would not be a student. I found a job teaching Latin at a boarding school for students with learning disabilities. My job was to sit with one student at a time — in a dorm room, actually, at a flimsy card table — and teach him to read Latin.

 

I think that his biggest philosophy was if you treat your students with respect they will return it.

 

I am sure that I was pretty terrible. I had started learning Latin just five years earlier, as a freshman in college. My only experience teaching had been as a tennis coach. And here I was, responsible for teaching Latin to students who were so disabled that most could read English only haltingly.

 

I’ll admit that I found myself waiting for other students to just get to the point at times, but he would take those opportunities to distill the student’s point and occasionally build on it. Some professors just roll their eyes when students fail to make their point clear. As the course went on, I noticed those students making the same sorts of connections themselves more often, and I started taking the contributions of students who had great ideas but weren’t able to express them easily more seriously. This development in my own attitude toward my peers was one of the more valuable things I got out of the course.

 

The next several years of my professional life were excruciatingly difficult. I moved from the private school to a public school in a wealthy community. The students who did not ignore me made me the target of their scorn. After all, I drove a Nissan Sentra to work; they drove Mercedes Benzes and BMWs to school. I spent every Sunday dreading my return to work the next morning. It was trial by conflagration. Every day a lesson in humiliation.

 

If there were an answer more affirmative than “Strongly Agree,” he would deserve it. I’ve never had an instructor at any level in any subject who is more clear and upfront about their expectations and goals for students. If possible, he should give a seminar at a faculty meeting on how to write a syllabus–most of the faculty could learn a thing or forty from him. 

 

Next, during a year in graduate school, where I earned a master’s degree in education, I was a practice teacher at an inner-city school in Boston. Some of the students were so menacing that I was instructed to leave my classroom if any of them made a move toward me. My first assignment afterward was at another suburban high school. If anything, those students were more manipulative and cruel, in petty ways, than any that I had previously encountered. Yes, I did succeed in asserting my authority and earning their respect, and I came to like so very many of them, but the cost was a huge exertion of willpower and determination.

 

Favorite class. I always couldn’t wait to get there.

 

Only when I returned to Atlanta and found work at N_____ S_____ High School did I hit my stride. The challenge there was not getting my students’ attention. The challenge was to keep up with them. They simply could not get enough. We had five levels of Latin, a course in Homeric Greek, a very active Latin club. I worked nonstop. At some point, the principal asked me to make sure that the flag outside the school had been lowered at the end of the day. “You’re the last one in the building, after all,” he said.

 

He treated us the way that he would have wanted to be treated.

 

I’ll mostly spare you the rest of my professional autobiography. What eventually ensued was six years of graduate school in classics, which entailed leaving my wife and infant son for many evenings and late nights of study; a seemingly endless series of exams to prepare for; and the researching, writing and defending of a dissertation. Then a year at this university, a year at one college, a semester at a different university, and then back to the same college to wear many hats over 15 years: director of corporate and foundation relations, assistant dean of the college, part-time professor.

 

Everything in the course taught us something.

 

Sometimes I ask myself what it was all for. I made hardly any money. Poverty wages, some would say. Grading papers can be such a grind. There were days in the classroom when my students seemed listless and when I bored even myself.

 

I happened to be going through a lot over this semester and I had to miss a very big test over the Thanksgiving holidays and I came back and talked to him about making it up. Even though I didn’t want to tell him, because of sympathy I did. He is a great teacher and person. He helped me out and let me take the test without penalty. He made me feel comfortable and cared for. He wants nothing more than for all his students to try and succeed. 

 

Year after year, and for one reason or another, it simply did not work out for me to become a regular member of the faculty at the college.

 

He was always making himself available; he answered emails almost an hour after I sent them to him. One time, when the class was preparing for a test, he invited us to call him to ask questions. Before the final, he even held a study session after class had officially ended. It was amazingly helpful.

 

What was the point of all that? Honestly, sometimes I’m not sure.

 

He taught in a way that is interesting and made you think. He encouraged each person’s voice and wanted everyone to use critical analysis in papers. He taught me to write for the subject and to give exactly what he was asking for. He made the class interesting and I can’t tell you a day that more than one person missed. He is passionate about his work, which becomes apparent through his excitement in class and his great knowledge in the subject.

 

But I suppose I have some idea. Early on, I realized that I had found an occupation that actually seemed worth all that hard, hard, hard work. It felt consequential. Something important was at stake, I thought. Which is not to say that I did not fantasize about quitting. That happened probably every week in the early years. Over time, though, I got better at what I was doing. I began to look forward to getting back in the classroom. It seemed like home to me, a place that was meant for me.

 

I can’t say enough about him. 

 

On the best days, I truly believed that I had the best job in the world. Those were the days when I connected with my students in a way that seemed almost magical, when something rare and precious seemed to have taken place. I can’t be sure that my students felt the same way I did, but I flatter myself that at least some of them did. Actually, I know that from time to time, I was fortunate enough to have a positive influence on a young person’s life.

 

One of those professors who is a “life changer” or who “leaves a lasting impression.” I would take any class that he teaches and encourage everyone to do so.

 

All these years later, I don’t know what happened to the boy I taught in 1984-85, the one who had never read a single book from cover to cover. Or the girl from the 1985-86 school year who wrote such a beautiful story for one of her class projects. Or the young man from 1987 who finally convinced his parents to allow him to transfer back to his neighborhood school, to rejoin his friends, whose first and last words to me were, “You’re a good teacher.” Or the sullen young woman from 1987-88 whom I could never reach, no matter how hard I tried. Or the bright young man from 1988-91 who went on to study classics in graduate school at Harvard.

 

He has clearly thought a great deal about teaching–more than most professors at an undergrad-focused liberal arts college. It’s a pleasure to take classes with him because he obviously enjoys teaching and cares about the material and his students–though he never plays favorites. However, he’s definitely one of my favorites, and I hope to take more courses with him in the future.

 

I can only hope and trust that maybe, just maybe, something that my students and I experienced together last year, a decade ago, two decades ago, three decades ago; even some little thing, a moment when our eyes met and we laughed together at some inside joke; or some word I stumbled on that made them feel a bit better; or some spark of excitement that they felt when they realized that they could learn and wanted to learn; or even my flare of anger that they had let themselves down, not to mention their classmates and me; or some vision I helped them realize, a vision of themselves as capable, worthy, and lovable … that maybe something in all those late afternoons of lesson planning, in those crack-of-dawn frenzies of grading, in those nausea-inducing Sunday evenings filled with dread for what Monday morning would bring, in the painful trial-and-error of figuring out what could work in my classroom and with my students, in the straining always to entice or cheer or challenge or excite or upbraid or rally my students into caring about the world of ideas … that maybe something in all that had meaning.

 

This, by far, has been the most intellectually challenging and fun course that I have ever had here. He has such a great impact on the students here, for he is able to shape young ladies into scholarly women. Wow, what a class, thank you.

 

No, thank you. I’ll miss you.

 

One thought on “Wistful

  1. Jim,

    This is quite moving. I really don’t like to hear that you’re not going to be teaching this year–or ever? Do let me know what you are doing, why you’re in Portland. I never knew you as a boy, but the picture of you here, in 1985, reminds me so much of your lovely father, Jim. I talk with your mother fairly often; she called when Flannery’s Prayer Journal appeared in The New Yorker, and we lamented, together, its publication. I hope you are happy and that you won’t leave teaching forever! Sarah Gordon

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