A few vignettes from my first year of high school teaching.
First: In the narrow hallway of my dormitory second floor apartment, Peter Hamlin and I are face to face, both faces red as we argue about some infraction of dorm rules he has been, in my opinion, guilty of, and a punishment that, in his opinion, is wholly unreasonable and unfair. I feel a degree of anger that seems excessive for a minor incident, anger stoked by Peter’s anger and by a reality of adolescence that confounds me.
Second: In the living room of the same small apartment, an expository writing class is meeting because my wife is at a graduate school class and I’m in charge of our months-old son. Sitting on the floor below me, Billy Powell has written in large letters in his notebook, placed where I can easily see it, “This class eats shit.”
And third: In a classroom, I lean back against a desk. My students have been entirely unresponsive to the poem that made me fall in love with poetry when I was a freshman in college, “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.” What am I doing here, I wonder. I look to my right through windows to a massive old beech tree. Another thought follows: To hell with kids. It’s literature I love; I don’t care what they think.
I took a prep school teaching job because, having completed my course work for a Ph.D. in English, I needed a place for my wife, my newborn son, and me to live, as well as an income. I had gone to a prep school myself when my father, a Baptist minster, took a pulpit in a town with a major prep school in its heart when I was fifteen, and my father had casually suggested that I might want to go there. I knew nothing about prep schools; I doubt that he, product of a small, struggling farm in the San Joaquin Valley of California, did either. Having learned something about prep schools in the three years I spent in one as a student, when faced with an adult need for a little security I thought that a prep school job that required no state certification was the logical move while I prepared for doctoral exams and wrote a dissertation, then headed off somewhere to teach in college. Despite having the teaching of several college freshman English classes under my belt as a graduate student teacher, I had thought little about what teaching is, and not at all about what high school teaching might be.
The first teaching I did, actually, was as a Peace Corps Volunteer two and three years before the college freshmen, teaching rudimentary reading and writing in French, and basic arithmetic, to the men of a small village in Senegal, West Africa, where the men, another Volunteer, and I had been repairing an old 70-foot open well and digging a new one. The teaching was part of a pilot UNESCO project. The men, on hot afternoons in a classroom whose walls and roof were made of millet stalks, were attentive and determined. We worked hard together on the wells, and the Peace Corps had provided a Volunteer physician to visit the village and examine babies and provide basic care while my companion and I translated; the level of trust between the men of the village and us was high, as was their motivation to learn the official language of their country and the numerical basis for economic transactions. It was teaching whose importance and satisfactions were clear to everyone concerned.
While I taught college freshmen and earned a Master’s degree in English, my wife and I ran a dorm in a women’s college, a position involving mostly counseling and friendship and very little discipline. The initial frustrations of high school teaching, however, including the endless conflicts of dormitory discipline in the 1970s (at a school where words like “order” and “discipline” and “rules” were close to obscenities), and the apparent lack of any sense that the classroom endeavor was important to my students, baffled and disappointed me. I wanted out but saw no plausible exit for some years in the future. I felt stuck in a world I was ill suited for.
Another vignette from that first year of prep school teaching. It’s the night before Christmas vacation. At 4 AM there’s a thunderous knocking at our apartment door. I shoot out of bed ready to decapitate whatever youngster is on the other side of the door, but my wife grabs me. “It’s OK, she says. ”I think it’s OK.” Slightly pacified, I open the door to two seniors, a boy and a girl, both of whom have been friendly and pleasant. They have come to bring us to “Stockings,” where the whole boarding department meets in a maintenance barn to open stockings prepared by seniors for every younger student and every faculty family member, have hot chocolate, and sing Christmas carols.
And postscripts to two of the first stories. Thanks to another student, Peter Lynch, Peter Hamlin and I have learned to get along. I’ve started cross-country teams at the school, and both Peters have joined the team the next year. That spring, the three of us go for a long run in the woods. Peter Hamlin, who had been the slowest of us, finds some extra strength on the hot afternoon, and, shirtless, runs away from us down the trail, to our great pleasure. That summer, he slips while hiking with his father, falls over a waterfall, and is killed. I can still see his strong, sweat-streaked back running away down that trail.
Billy Powell and I become friendly. He’s a wonderful instinctive pianist, born to the blues, and music becomes a bond we both enjoy. When he’s a senior, I tease him about what he had written in his notebook, and he laughs.
Last year was my fortieth year as a high school teacher and coach. Clearly, something happened to calm some of the turmoil of that first year and to convince me, even when I did finish the Ph.D., to make a life’s work as a high school teacher.
As a boy, I was, more than anything else, a reader. At the twenty-fifth reunion of what would have been my public high school class had we not moved to the town where I ended up in prep school, Michael Earl, my best friend from third to seventh grade, told me that he used to call my house to see whether I could come over and play, and as often as not my mother would say, “Oh no; Brian’s reading.” I can almost hear her voice, hushed as at the invocation of a sacrament. Reading was important in our house. Michael, as it happened, became a first rate athlete, once scoring more points in a basketball game than the whole team of our high school’s great rival, the local parochial school. I have very little athletic ability, and in public schools one’s identity became fixed early: mine involved the chorus, the band, and, at least until homework entered our lives in seventh grade (that’s another story), being one of the supposed smart kids.
My love for reading, for literature and language, however, has led to about as much frustration as satisfaction. My disappointment over “Prufrock” is far from the whole story, of course. I’ve had students who fall in love with poems just as I did. I’ve had classes that seemed, at least at times, to be enthusiastic working groups who pursued the meanings of books and stories with something approaching the focus and relentlessness of a small child’s attempts to walk. I’ve had tutorials with smart, hardworking, perceptive students on Wallace Stevens and Charles Dickens. I’ve taught War and Peace and had students tell me they kept it on their desks at college, so powerful were their memories of the novel and our discussions of it. I’ve had students find their way to writing of polish, crisp energy, and important thinking.
Still, many moments of apathetic classes, homework undone, quizzes failed, and essays about as enthusiastically undertaken as the dinner dishes have continued to make me question my work. My students have sometimes seemed irredeemably spoiled by affluence and by both a wider culture and a school culture that ignores or even mocks genuine excitement about learning as something for an ivory tower but not the real world, and instead values wealth, physical appearance, athletic achievement, popularity, and its too-frequent sibling, notoriety. In addition, over the years of my teaching life the distractions from study have mounted in an increasingly irresistible spiral. Once we worried about television. I know I don’t need to enumerate today’s distractions from the quiet, serious pursuit of knowledge.
In that early morning time of Christmas stockings, carols, and the warmth of two mature students who liked my family, I began to glimpse what became, and remains, the heart of teaching for me. That heart is love. I began with that boy and girl to see, or rather feel, that something could exist between teacher and student that I had never imagined, though I know now that I had experienced it, to a degree, as a boy in school. Teacher and student can love each other as Jane Austen defines love in Pride and Prejudice, a combination of respect and gratitude. Love so defined is less interesting, she says (she’s being funny) than other kinds of love, the highly sexualized, mythically romantic, at-first-sight variety both her world and ours celebrates as the real thing. The love that is made up of respect and gratitude, however, is not only the love that long-term, lifelong companions share; it is also a love that can join teacher and student in the most truly rewarding version of teaching and learning. It is, and has been for many years, why I teach.
In my second year of prep school teaching, I started cross-country teams at my school. Though not an athlete as a boy, I had discovered and learned to love, in my twenties, running and weight lifting, and found that even for a former sousaphone player in a marching band being fit and strong were both satisfying and pleasurable. Running with my teams through the woods, picking myself or one of them up after a fall, wiping off the mud and blood and going on with the run, I started to feel and receive an affection that surprised me. When I left that school after eight years, my team, at our last end-of-season dinner, presented me with a cake decorated by a figure in icing dressed in my characteristic blue shorts, and the words, “We’d run anywhere with you, Mr. Ford.” Anyone who has enjoyed coaching has had such an experience — has felt love for his or her team because of the respect teammates and coaches have for each other’s efforts and gratitude for the chance to run together, to be physical together, to win and lose, sweat and, at times, weep together.
Coaching, then, first taught me clearly that the teaching life I had entered into pragmatically was becoming a life’s work. At my next school, one day, about thirty years ago now, I noticed that a girl named Sybil looked a little down — maybe even a little teary. When I saw her a while later, outside the Schoolhouse, I asked whether she were OK — whether something in the class had upset her. She said, “I was just wishing you were my father.” I had not had the slightest inkling that she saw me as anything other than her teacher in the most common sense. I was still learning the truth that, as my wife puts it, learning happens in the context of a relationship. I only dimly understand why Sybil felt as she did, or why other students have come to see me as in loco parentis in a literal way, but I know now that what happens at times in the classroom is what happens, in a way easier to see, less trammeled by such matters as grades, with a team.
The relationships between teacher and student are both simple and complex. Certainly they are never all sweetness and light; sometimes they’re drama and darkness. The affection I feel for my students is wholly clear to me now, and has been for decades, but how my students feel about me is both often unknown and, in fact, for the most part better left unknown. Of course one cannot, must not, court affection. Our students and our teams deserve the truth. Sport has a wonderful clarity. My chosen sport, ultimately, became the sport of rowing, and there’s no bench in rowing. To move a student down to a lower boat must happen if it will make the higher boat faster. That’s the coach’s job, and nothing, including the rower’s feelings, can be allowed to interfere with doing it. But boat speed is visible — tangible. Grades, in English particularly, are intangible and easily seem arbitrary. English teachers agree that a first sentence can reveal whether or not an essay will be good —whether or not the writer has a feel for language the way a fine oarsman or oarswoman has a feel for how the blade enters the water. But students can’t be expected to have such a sensitivity. And because writing is personal, low grades hurt.
That writing is personal (Henry David Thoreau says in Walden that he would write about someone else if there were anyone else he knew as well as he knew himself) has come to shape my approach to teaching it. You are not all English teachers, but I hope you’ll follow my thoughts about writing. Another episode in a class illustrates my approach perfectly. A student named Mitzi wrote an essay twenty-five years ago about our school’s hockey rink. It included the sound the toenails of the Zamboni driver’s dog, Harley, made on new ice. When her class applauded the essay (I’d asked her to read it aloud), and I asked her why she thought it was so successful, she said, “The topic, I guess.” “What about the topic?” I asked. “I know it so well and love it so much,” she answered. I continue to quote her.
When my students write about what they know and love, I believe, they begin to learn what it means to write rather than, as one writer once said about another’s work, merely to type. The personal writing I teach, known variously these days as the personal essay, creative non-fiction, or the fourth genre, has an additional benefit: I come to know my students well. I know what they love, what they hate, what they fear. And as —if — they do trust me with their truths, that trust becomes love.
The verb “teach” is related, etymologically, to the word “token,” as in a token of affection one person might give to another. I’ve come to see teaching as the attempt to stand for something to one’s students — to be an example of what a certain human endeavor, the endeavor to learn, to understand, looks like. If we can manage to be something our students want to emulate, then we have done something worthwhile. If loving to read and trying to read with care and thoughtfulness, and writing with passion and eloquence, if one is an English teacher, can come to seem worthwhile because the teacher seems worthwhile as a human being, then there’s a decent chance of the teaching’s succeeding. I’m not talking about the teacher as “role model”; very few of my students want to be high school English teachers. Such a life’s work had certainly never occurred to me as a callow youth. However, we play many roles in life. A job, a profession, is a role, but as with a role in a play, it’s not just a matter of the script, but of the performance. I believe that in our performances as teachers we need to be examples of what it means to be an English teacher, a chemistry teacher, a football coach, a rowing coach, but also what it means to be a human being.
It may begin to sound as if I consider myself an exemplary human being. I don’t. Nor do I consider myself a good reader or writer or teacher. These things are too difficult for self-congratulation. Here are T.S. Eliot’s words about the difficulty of writing poems (he wrote “The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the poem I was so frustrated about with my first prep school students). They’re from the end of “East Coker,” one of a group of poems late in his life called “Four Quartets.”
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
That’s the way teaching feels to me: there is only the trying. That’s the way being a human being feels to me, or being a coach, or a husband, or a parent. But we must try, with whatever method comes to hand. College, graduate school; mentors from among older teachers; psychotherapy; meditation. I’m reminded of a story a speaker about Buddhism, Ram Dass, used to tell. At one talk he noticed an older woman in the front row who nodded enthusiastically at each of his points. He delved deeper and deeper into the mysteries of enlightenment, and she kept nodding. When the talk ended, he spoke to her. “You seem to understand everything I say,” he said. “How did you come to know it all?” She leaned closer and said, “Well, you know, I crochet.”
At the end of every school year I have strong feelings of failure. This class never came to life; that class was chaotic far too often; my team never became a true team, but were separate individuals until the end. I spend much of the summer thinking about what I might have done better and resolving to try this or that, to do better, next year. I’m considering trying a version of what’s called the “flipped classroom” this year, having my classes read silently in class, with no cell phones buzzing, no twitter feeds inserting their insignificant details between the pages or paragraphs or sentences of Beloved or “Prufrock.” I’ll try to get someone to teach me how to film a lecture they’ll watch as homework. We’ll discuss less, but I hope they’ll begin to understand what genuine reading requires, and even to like it —that trance of engagement and thought that shuts the rest of the world away. I recently re-read a note a rower wrote me some years ago about what she had experienced of me as a coach, and I’ll try to bring more of what she describes to my team next year than I did last spring. I’ll go on practicing taiji and trying to be consistent in my meditation practice.
It’s been forty years; this year is the forty-first. I don’t know that I can ever stop, partly because I’m quite sure I’ll never get it right, and partly because I love my students and can’t imagine life without them. I love literature; I love language; I love our school community. I’ve been, and am, a very lucky man. The Peace Corps used to have an ad that called being a Volunteer “the hardest job you’ll ever love.” Teaching’s another. A student once gave me a mug I still have; though the words have faded, they’re still legible. It says, “Those who can, do; those who can do more, teach.” As Eliot says, there is only the trying. And, as I gradually learned in my first decade as a teacher and have yearly become more certain about, there’s love.