“One shouldn’t identify with one’s successes or failures; one had to remain detached. A teacher served, but couldn’t identify with the results.”
When I was an undergraduate I took an advanced English composition course from Professor Werner White, a fastidious man who held high, but often rigid, academic standards. One day while he was passing back graded papers, one of the students interrupted him.
“Sir,” he said. “There must be some mistake here. You have given me a C-.”
Professor White took the paper from the young man, glanced at it, then handed it back. “No, there’s no mistake, Mr. Bennett. That’s what the paper earned.”
“But this paper is an expression of everything I know! This paper is me. Are you telling me that all I am worth is a C-?”
“No, I’m telling you that you don’t know how to use the semi-colon and that you don’t know how to organize paragraphs.”
The student got even more indignant. “Oh, so that’s what this class is about—semi-colons and paragraphs? It’s not about honesty or truth or self-expression?”
“You’ve got it,” Professor White replied. “I don’t know what truth is, young man, but I do know what effective prose is. Look at me. I have no soul at all and yet people tell me I am an excellent writer.”
The student fell silent sorting out Professor White’s reply, and then he said, “In that case, Professor White, this paper is not a C- at all; it’s an F. And an F from a man like you, sir, would be an honor. Please change my grade.”
Professor White refused, and so the student stood up and ceremoniously marked an F on his own paper in large strokes and walked toward the door. But before he left, he turned to the rest of the class and said, “Who is coming with me? Are you going to let this man walk all over you?”
We were all silent. No one left with him.
“Have it your way, Sheep,” he said and then bounded out of the room.
All the rest of the students, myself included, breathed a collective sigh of relief. But we also held down our heads. A part of us was with him, a part of us resented our teacher’s niggardly preoccupation with formal integrity, and we longed for liberation.
The next quarter I decided I needed to loosen up a bit, and so I took a class on “British Romantic Poets” from Professor Molly Miller. She was a sixty-two-year-old woman with long gray hair and deep sea-green eyes who, unlike Professor White, had a reputation as a campus radical.
The first day of class the room was packed with over fifty students—many trying to add the course on to their schedules. When Molly walked in, the class quieted down. She began by reciting Wordsworth: “My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky./So it was when I was young, so it shall be when I am old or let me die./The child is father to the man, and I would wish my days to be bound each to each in natural piety.”
No one spoke.
“Do you know what natural piety is?” she asked us. “Do you wish for it?”
Again, no one spoke.
“That is the last time I’m going to speak,” she concluded. “You carry on.”
After a long awkward silence that must have lasted all but two minutes, someone asked her if there was any room to add the course.
“Of course,” she said. “I’ll add until the room is full.”
“How do you grade?”
“Everyone gets an A in the course,” she said. “So if you’re here just for a grade, stay home. The Romantics teach us that there is nothing worse than false motives.”
It took the rest of the period for her to sign all the add forms, but, of course, the next day of class only six people showed up. The day after that, only three.
Molly was true to her word and didn’t speak much.
The discussions were dominated by a rather tiresome fellow in the front row. Molly would listen politely but passively, looking around at the rest of us, as if waiting for us to speak out, wondering when someone, anyone, would assert their natural piety. I never did and stopped going to class after the third week.
Later that quarter I was walking across campus and I saw Molly coming toward me.
“I see you’ve stopped coming to class,” she observed.
“Yeah, well, I was going to come. Grades aren’t that important to me, but that guy in the front row kept dominating the discussions.”
“Whose fault is that?” she asked.
“I guess I could have said something,” I admitted.
“Look,” Molly said, “Students will never learn anything until they take responsibility for their own education. As long as you rely on others to motivate you or pre-digest things for you, you will never learn. Many of the other professors want to make you over in their image. I want to set you free. But you’ve got to take up the challenge and accept the responsibility.”
I was too ashamed to go back to her class after that, and I know now that had I done so, it might have been one of the most important acts of my life. But I didn’t go, and though I have never forgotten her and I can still recite that poem by Wordsworth, I am still only beginning to understand her vision of the sublime pedagogy.
A year later I did graduate work at the University of Chicago, where I was a research assistant for a very famous professor who inspired me by his example of what it meant to live, not simply profess, the life of the mind.
I’d find books in the library for him, put together bibliographies, buy potato chips for his dinner parties, and drive assorted luminaries to and from his home.
One night my job was to drive a famous literary critic from the lecture hall to my professor’s house for a dinner party and then drive my professor’s cook home. When I came to pick up his cook, the guests were applauding her wonderful cuisine. She was a Black woman in her sixties, and she smiled and accepted their applause graciously. Then she walked up to the critic—herself a woman in her sixties—and admired her earrings. “My, my those are wonderful earrings. I bet they are very expensive. My, my, they are so beautiful.”
I wondered if she was being polite or making some sort of oblique social commentary. It was hard to say.
I told her I was there to drive her home.
“No, no, Sonny, no need to drive me home. I’ll just take the bus. . . although the other night those boys did bother me.”
I got the distinct impression this time that she was making social commentary.
“Come on,” I said. “Tell me how to get to your house.”
It wasn’t a long drive, maybe ten minutes through some very ominous urban territory. She made small talk about crime and the dangers of riding city buses. It was about eight o’clock when I dropped her off, and I could see the curtain part in the window on the second floor and a small child’s head duck back inside.
After she got out of the car and safely into her home, I locked the car door on her side and drove quickly back to my professor’s home. I felt vaguely unsettled. Why did she have so little when others, like me, had so much? Did it make sense for me to return to my resident hall to write my paper on Wallace Stevens so that someday I could be a professor, when right before my eyes hard-working women had been cut off from such possibilities? Saint Francis would have given the woman his coat. No, he would have given the woman the professor’s car, dropped out of graduate school, and lived a life of service in the street.
But I didn’t do that. I went back to my room and started typing away. . . “The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.”
But what did I know about emperors? What did I know about melting? I suddenly felt sheltered, protected, unreal. I wanted to call my professor and ask him, “How can we live with it? The injustices? Our comforts? Beautiful lives amid such struggle? How could Wallace Stevens, an insurance executive, dare to call himself a ‘connoisseur of chaos?’ And how dare I claim that I understood him?”
I was very young then, and when I went to bed that night, cuddled up in those clean dorm linens, I muttered the lines from Chekhov’s “Gooseberries”: “Lord, forgive us sinners!”
I wouldn’t say this was one of the defining moments of my life. We have all had many like it. Sudden and startling, momentary pangs of conscience. What is one to do with them? What are they telling us? Live responsibly? But how? Don’t forget the excluded? But is memory enough?
Years later I came to see what my Professor probably would have told me had I asked him at the time—that such moments meant for me to “Become a teacher.” Not just a successful professional but a teacher who takes up their very life into speech.
But did I have the resources? Could I tell the stories? Could I own up to what life had made of me?
It wasn’t really a choice any longer; it was the only way left open to me.
Two years later, in 1981, I found myself teaching in a boy’s Catholic prep school with a sixty-seven-year-old Christian Brother who had spent time in a Zen monastery before entering the Order. He helped me to see how classroom teaching could become a way to enlightenment.
One afternoon I was walking down the hall after a particularly successful class when Brother Blake caught the confidence in my step.
“You must really be a great teacher,” he said. “I can tell by the way you are walking that you are really hot stuff.”
“Ah, Brother,” I pleaded. “Can’t I enjoy even one victory?”
“Well,” he said. “If you take credit for the good days, you are going to have to take credit for the bad ones too.”
I knew what he was getting at. One shouldn’t identify with one’s successes or failures; one had to remain detached. A teacher served, but couldn’t identify with the results. One day you served macaroni and cheese, the next day filet mignon, but they decide what they are going to eat.
Then he asked me, “Do the students seem better or worse to you now that you’ve been teaching here for a while?”
“Better,” I said.
“Wrong answer,” he replied.
“Worse,” I replied.
“Is there some third option I’m not aware of?”
“These students are both better and worse than you can imagine,” he said. “They possess capacities for goodness that you have yet to imagine and capacities for evil you have yet to comprehend.”
I looked at him, “The human heart is vast,” he said.
Blake showed me what he meant the following day.
I was having a particularly difficult time with my last period English class, and I asked Blake to help me.
My lesson was on fables and parables; I was trying to explain what an image was when Blake slipped silently into the room and sat in an empty desk in the corner. As I was speaking, Timmy Watson was tearing paper out of his notebook, wadding it up into paper wads, and throwing them as hard as he could against the wall.
I told him to stop and he said he would, but then a minute later, he was tearing the paper out again, wadding it up, and throwing it as hard as he could against the wall again.
I asked him to stop again, and he said he would. But a minute later he did it again. I was about to send him out of the room when Brother Blake rose and asked me if he could take over my class.
“Sure.” I said, thinking he could have it for the rest of his life if he wanted it.
Blake asked the class, “Why is it that Timmy is the only person in this class doing anything?”
“Timmy?” one student replied. “He’s not doing anything. He’s just throwing paper like he always does. Timmy’s an idiot.”
“No,” Blake said, “Timmy’s looking for power. The rest of you passive aggressives are just sitting here making Mr. Inchausti do all your work for you, but Timmy is doing something. He’s looking for power. The problem is that he is looking for power in the wrong place. He’s looking for it in paper, and there is no power in paper.”
Then he walked up to Timmy and told him to take some paper, wad it up, and throw it at him.
Timmy was astounded, “You mean I can bounce a paper wad off your head?”
“Go for it,” said Blake, “Make the biggest paper wad you can and throw it with all your might right at the center of my forehead.”
The class went crazy. Everyone passed paper back to Timmy, and he compacted it into the most lethal paper wad ever conceived.
“Now toss if off my head,” Blake told him.
Timmy took his time, wound up, and fired the paper wad directly between Blake’s eyes.
The paper hit the aging Brother on the forehead and fell unceremoniously to the floor. It was one of the most anti-climactic moments I have witnessed in my life.
“Now what just happened?” Blake asked.
Timmy was dumbfounded.
“You just threw the biggest paper wad that ever existed between my eyes, and I am still in control of this class and you are not. How did that happen?”
Timmy was still silent.
“Because I have word power,” Blake explained, “and you only have paper power. And word power beats paper power every time. Now how do you get word power?”
Timmy was listening. “You listen to Mr. Inchausti,” Blake explained. “You read the fables, you study the parables. If you don’t, you will be a paper-pushing paper boy, your entire life.”
Blake walked over to Timmy, put his arm around his shoulder and said, “You’ve really got to get your shit together, and to do that you need a good asshole. I am going to be your asshole this year, and after me, if you are lucky, you’ll meet another asshole, and another until your shit is packed so tight it coalesces into a fine powder. And then maybe you will be ready for the greatest asshole of them all.”
And with that Brother Blake stood back from the boy’s desk and pointed to the crucifix hanging above the blackboard just below the American flag.
The class gasped. It was at once the most sacrilegious and yet mystic moment many of them had ever experienced.
If Jesus was the greatest asshole, then maybe they had misunderstood everything about him. What did it mean to be an asshole anyway?
Brother Blake’s image had unleashed a moment of authentic teenage religious awe. This was not sixth grade catechism with its platitudes and trite moral rules. This was something that pulled away from school rooms and lesson books towards something more profound. Suddenly it was clear to all of us that there was nothing so secular that it could not be made sacred, and no life so lost that it could not be found.
“That’s what a teacher does,” I thought, “and I am going to be one.”