The best teachers impart lessons in their own way

The best teachers impart lessons in their own way
                        

My favorite professor’s favorite passage from his favorite Hemingway novel was this:

“That was what you did. You died. You didn’t know what it was about. You never had time to learn. They threw you in and told you the rules and then, the first time they caught you off base, they killed you.”

Taken in the context of “A Farewell to Arms,” set during the Italian campaign of the First World War, the words describe pointless death amid the human waste of armed conflict.

That much was pretty plain, but our professor eschewed the obvious and, like a jeweler examining a flawless diamond, pulled the paragraph from its setting and held it up to the light, creating a prismatic effect, one that brought amazing clarity amid the colors of imagination.

“Suppose,” he said, “we think of it in terms of love, not war, using words like ‘lost’ and ‘failed,’ rather than ‘died’ and ‘killed.’ What happens then?”

I spoke up.

“Well, it pretty much describes what happened between me and my ex-girlfriend,” I said. “I never saw it coming.”

There were murmurs of agreement around the classroom, this being Notre Dame in the mid-’70s, a place that had only recently begun admitting women. Everyone knew the game of love was rigged, that the dice were loaded, and that being on the wrong side of a 7-1 ratio, guys knew they had little chance of success.

“This is what makes Hemingway so important,” the professor said. “He’s relevant even when it seems he’s not. That’s his genius.”

My favorite high school teacher taught 11th-grade advanced English. She had been on the faculty for many years, and it was considered a privilege to be admitted to her class.

She divided her curriculum between American and European authors, so in the fall we studied Hawthorne and Heller and Vonnegut before tackling Kafka and Camus and Solzhenitsyn in the spring.

Her methods weren’t precisely modern — as you’d expect from an educator with so much experience — but she understood with the passage of time allowances had to be made for a more questioning audience.

Toward that end she’d adopted a circular arrangement of desks, doing away with the traditional rows, and she never bothered calling the roll, leaving it to us to explain any absences publicly.

This led to a more free-flowing exchange of ideas and created a sense of communal identity, even as she encouraged individual expression. Her tests weren’t unorthodox. You still had to have done the reading, but her grades often reflected a certain flexibility.

It wasn’t unusual for her to, for example, give credence to a student’s comparison of Ivan Denisovich to POWs being held in Hanoi or to go along with a discussion of witch-burning and what it had in common with the burgeoning Women’s Lib movement.

What made her even more remarkable was her interest in your life outside the classroom, and she was always urging you to take advantage of those swiftly passing days.

I still regret not taking her advice and asking a girl to the prom.

My favorite grade school teacher believed in the pursuit of excellence, period.

Whether it was learning Latin for High Mass or throwing an accurate pass during playground football, he had little use for those who weren’t willing to go beyond their limits.

I still remember the pride I took when he handed back a test that he had graded “110 percent.” It wasn’t like him to do that kind of thing; in fact he was much more likely to find fault when there wasn’t any.

Well, any I could see.

And that was the whole point. He understood on some basic level it was up to him to educate us beyond the Bible, beyond Catholicism, beyond the vagaries of our faith and what lay beyond.

There were two distinct factions in that elementary school. One believed he could do no wrong, that even though his demanding ways were difficult to follow, there was value in them. The other side feared him to the edge of hatred and turned away from it all.

Both were valid points of view.

In the years that have passed since those days, the school has been replaced, the church has been demolished and everything’s modern.

I’ve gone back and walked through it all, taken in the newness, the novelty of computers and online this-and-that.

It’s impressive.

But that teacher, the one I had for fifth, sixth and seventh grades, is nowhere to be found. That’s OK too. I still strive for excellence.

My favorite teachers were all kite-fliers, sending ideas into the air on currents of imagination, aiming to engage us the notions of the possible even as we stared at the sky and sometimes couldn’t see past the clouds.

They were fire-coaxers, rubbing two sticks together, patiently waiting for that spark, that moment of ignition, the one that might produce a flame that would light the way out of the darkness for those yearning to see blinding brilliance.

They were chord-creators, making music of their own vision, sharing it, playing it, turning it up loud, so loud dissonance gave way to a rhythm, a pulse that still beats in their students.

I wanted to be a teacher. My parents were both teachers, my sister and my brother both became teachers, and they married teachers.

But something held me back.

Maybe it was my inflated ego, the ugly narcissism that has marked my progression from grade school through college and beyond.

Maybe it was my problem with those I perceive as not very bright; after all I’m always saying things like “I can’t cure stupid.”

And maybe it’s the realization that in a world awash in pain and disappointment and disillusionment, I’m ill-equipped to offer much encouragement because I know all too well it’s hard to keep trying.

But I do and so, I hope, do you.

Some of the lessons I’ve learned, I believe, are worth sharing.

Class dismissed.


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