My first sojourn up in front of a firing squad of students was not an auspicious beginning. No casual observer – indeed, not even the savviest HR person – could have predicted that I would go on to chalk up 20-plus years of successful teaching. Even I, myself, had serious doubts about the mid-life career change I was foolishly contemplating.
It was 1985 and that morning Jeannie, my fiancée, woke up feverish. She was barely able to make it to the bathroom. When after rummaging through the medicine cabinet she finally slid back into bed I vaguely heard her ask if wouldn’t I please teach her freshman class for her . . . Please!
I squinted at the clock. It was a Monday, still dark outside, and in little more than an hour, I – the classic misfit – was supposed to stand up in front of a slew of college kids and talk knowledgeably about Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”.
No matter that I had never taught before; I had read the Hemingway story; what do teachers know, anyway?
I hurriedly showered. I doused my nerves with coffee. Then, while driving out to the campus I consoled myself with an old saying, to the effect that, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”. Given my rather intense lifestyle, I reasoned, plus the fact that I habitually push my luck to the limit and thus was genuinely grounded in loss and despair and joy and commitment – many of the so called existential themes which one can snitch from a reading of Hemingway – given such an ill-disguised passion for living, then, and the truths that come from banging one’s head against a wall, surely I could motivate a room full of nineteen year-olds as well as any “mere” academic.
I say “misfit” but it was always by choice that I seemed to be on the outside looking in. I hit my stride in the late-60s & early-70s. Back then it was not a waste of time to pick up on a whim and go off on a tangent. I have, accordingly, been a social worker, washed dishes, worked as a night watchman, trained attack dogs, taught tennis, been self employed as a personnel consultant, lived for three months in an old ranger’s shack high up in the Shasta Trinity National Forest – and once was even threatened with the charge of practicing medicine without a license. In those days I didn’t much bother to keep a steady job.
I even like to think that I learned something along the way. A man who from coast to coast has ransacked dumpsters in search of edibles ought to know five or six things more than someone who hasn’t, is my opinion.
With that in mind I walked into the classroom and introduced myself. Now . . . it would never occur to me that at any time day or night one would not gladly drop whatever one was doing and jump headfirst into a friendly fracas over art, literature, philosophy, the meaning of life. So, with the rhetoric of politeness I explained that their regular instructor was not here but that I would be delighted to stay and discuss Hemingway with anyone who so desired.
To my chagrin, each and every one of the students immediately got up and walked out.
Kids these days are rather flippant and don’t get passionately involved, I concluded. With the next class, then, the one at nine o’clock, I would take roll and require that they participate. One young lady, in fact, drew me a plump little smile face next to her name on the sign-in sheet. And I did finally manage to entice several of them into a discussion, of sorts. The old man in “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” who night after night sits despairingly in a cafe drinking his brandy, the students thought, merely needed a woman to “jump his bones”. And the possibility that “it was all a nothing and a man was nothing too” was not yet a fear in their vocabulary.
But I tried. I dug deep and tried to get them to grasp some connection between a defeated old man whose future had closed in on him and the story’s blatantly nihilistic statement in the startling blasphemy of the Lord’s Prayer. (“Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name . . .”) Only if I could get them to sweat with compassion would I be able to take them that one final step toward an appreciation of Hemingway’s subtle but unmistakably positive outlook. Which is that the old man, each one of us, in fact, is free to preserve in the face of the over-whelmingness of the universe at least some small measure of personal dignity in the way that we quietly order our lives. Key to my effort was this idea of nada, nothingness. I went at it with the zeal of a jackhammer, unmindful of the growing fidgetiness in the room until one kid way in the back suddenly shouted:
“What’s all this ‘nada’ shit?”
That morning I was the one who learned something. What I learned is that no amount of lived experience doth automatically a teacher make.
When the bell rung I slunk back to my books and my rather sporadic lifestyle, quite content to let those who can, teach.
It would be another four years before I was hired as a full-time instructor at Ferris State University. And that first morning up in Michigan, as I puked in a faculty bathroom before walking into class, I glanced into the mirror and noticed – like they say sometimes happens in combat – that my hair had started to turn gray overnight!
Terrified, yes – but there was a mitigating difference. Over the intervening years I had absorbed a valuable lesson: never try to fake being prepared, they’ll crucify you.
The Modernist art and literature that speaks so eloquently to one generation, mine, does so because I too was forged in the same crucible of experience. But generations quickly become obsolete and a new flock of kids lacking that shared experience also lacks any instinctive appreciation of the artifacts rising out of the ashes of that cultural Zeitgeist.
And so early on I set myself a nearly impossible goal: to never underestimate the gulf that separates the modernist and the postmodernist generations. Each day in class for the next 20 years I made it a point of honor to strap on a bungee cord and plunge into the most difficult of subjects for 19 year-olds to wrap their minds around: Pablo Picasso & Cubism, Jackson Pollock & Drip Painting, Waiting For Godot & Theatre of the Absurd, Marcel Duchamp’s urinal (“Fountain”) as a Dada work of art, etc.
Was I any good?
“You’ll never know,” said a former graduate professor of mine in an email recently, “whether you had any impact on your students or not. Because if & when they do appreciate you, it won’t be until years later, when they mature and begin to think back over their influences. And by then you’ll be long gone from their lives . . . or dead.”
Ain’t dead yet, but long gone from thousands of lives