Seems I’ve had teachers all wrong. I listen to the rhetoric this campaign season and I hear a lot of blowhards on the right who think that teachers are leeches, wastrels attached to the public tit, driving up taxes by making us pay them a living wage for the privilege of being locked in a room with a mess of kids whose parents no longer bother to socialize them, trying to divert the electronically atomized attentions of ten-year-olds to the path of knowledge, to coax them into accepting the patience it takes to synthesize the constant bombardment of information this world generates, to make them understand that learning isn’t consumption, it is digestion, and that digestion takes time, takes reflection. That learning is worth it. Trying to do that in front of a room of kids, some of them too entitled, some of them too deprived, but all of whom will walk out of the classroom into a world of instant access to limitless data – where porn and music and video and gossip pour over their minds in a constant flood of stimuli. It’s like preaching fidelity in a whorehouse.
Oh, and some of them just might be armed.
I’ve been in a reflective mood lately. I’ve always been prone to narcissistic bouts of navel gazing, and having a book deal, being on the threshold of being an honest-to-Jesus published author is bringing that out some. Some of that’s been unhealthy, most of it probably. The regret of looking back on a few wasted decades where I gave up on my passion, where I told myself that dreaming of being an author was a childish indulgence, like dreaming of playing third base for the Cubs. A childish thing I had to put aside in favor of the demands of adulthood. Nothing to be gained from regret, though. Just more moments wasted pondering unhappy moments past.
I’ve also been thinking of people I won’t be able to share this moment with, people I’d very much like to. My parents, both gone now, but who raised me in a household lousy with books and never batted an eye at the idea of majoring in English. Just knowing that there will be a book printed with my name on the cover, even if it is paperback, even if it is just a genre thriller, knowing that I will hold that book in my hand but will never be able to put it in theirs, that’s hurts. So I think of my parents. I think of some good friends already dead.
Whatever your field, there are probably teachers without whom you wouldn’t be where you are, who you are. Not just because they did their jobs, did the pedagogical blocking and tackling that left you with a basic academic skill set, but because they recognized the tender shoots of ability, saw an inkling of talent, of aptitude, of passion, and they took the time to nurture it. To protect it. To fertilize it with their own experience, to buttress its fragile hopes with their own dreams.
I hated some of them at the time. Miss Weiss and Sister Loretta at Holy Angels School, women whose respect for the English language, whose passion for it, meant they would not suffer its abuse, who insisted that we learn the rules, all of them, and with the diligence and repetition that made that learning habit.
Father Peter Enderlin and Jim Boushay at Marmion Military Academy, the former who continued that insistence on discipline and the later who encouraged some first flights of fancy.
Professors Marion and David Stocking and Tom McBride at Beloit College. The Stockings were a married couple, the long-time keepers of the Beloit Poetry Journal, both English professors, simultaneously gentle, supportive and demanding. Gone now, too.
Of all the teachers I remember, only Tom McBride is still alive, the irascible bastard. Probably just too mean to die. He didn’t run a class, he ran an interrogation. Sweated you for answers, and then wrung you out, just to see if maybe there was another drop of learning to be squeezed out of you. Or maybe he just enjoyed it.
I was in his Literary Criticism class back in 1978. I’d done well my freshman year, Dean’s list and such, and I was feeling my oats. Always had a gift for BS, was always able to cobble together a convincing pile of words to dump on top of any question, always thought that was enough. Class is winding down one day and McBride asks me a question, something about Dover Beach, I don’t remember what exactly, and I didn’t have the answer straight up, hadn’t done the thinking, but I found a tangent, tapped dance off on that for a bit, riffed to some other point, flapped my gums for a good bit. Pretty proud of myself by the time I shut up, actually.
“That’s very glib Mr. O’Shea,” McBride said.
I guess I smiled. Probably wasn’t exactly clear on the meaning of glib. Probably thought it was a good thing.
“You may want to look that word up when you make the acquaintance of a dictionary, Mr. O’Shea. It is not a compliment.”
But he didn’t just bitch slap me – and god knows I had a bitch slapping coming. He took me aside in the hallway after class. He told me that I had a natural facility with language. Said that it likely had often been enough, that it had allowed me to BS my way through a lot of classes by giving the appearance of learning without actually having learned. Said that it likely often would be enough. But that it would not be enough in his class. He told me I had talent, that I had a good mind, and that, if I cared to apply it, I could do more than just skate along on the surface of things. That, if I made the effort to dive below the surface, I just might find that it was worth it. That he was willing to help me do that. That he hoped I would. Really hoped I would.
Tom McBride is still alive. I run into him regularly these days, posting bad puns on Facebook. He’s had students publish books before. Real books. So I doubt he’s going to be too impressed with my paperback thriller.
But I’d like him to know I listened. I’d like him to know he made a difference just the same.
(Professor McBride’s got his own book, by the way, the celebrated The Mindset Lists of American History: From Typewriters to Text Messages, What Ten Generations of Americans Think Is Normal. You oughta go get you one. And do me a favor, will you? If you find a typo, let me know.)