Letters to a Teacherby Sam Pickering
“Pickering’s odd timelessness–his ideas seem simultaneously old-fashioned and up-to-date–and his warm wisdom . . . will please educators and interested lay readers alike.” –Publishers Weekly
Inspirational reflections and philosophy on teaching from the person who inspired Dead Poets Society
Sam Pickering has been teaching–guiding, performing, inspiring–for more than forty years. As a young English teacher at Montgomery Bell Academy in Tennessee, his musings on literature and his maverick pedagogy touched a student named Tommy Schulman, who later wrote the screenplay for Dead Poets Society. Pickering went on to teach at Dartmouth and the University of Connecticut, where he has been for twenty-five years. His acclaimed essays have established him as a nimble thinker with a unique way of enlightening us through the quotidian.
Letters to a Teacher is a welcome reminder that teaching is a joy and an art. In ten graceful yet conversational letters addressed to teachers of all types, Pickering shares compelling, funny, always elucidating anecdotes from a lifetime in the classrooms of school and universities. His priceless, homespun observations touch on topics such as competition, curiosity, enthusiasm, and truth, and are leavened throughout with stories–whether from the family breakfast table, his revelatory nature walks, or his time teaching in Australia and Syria. More than a how-to guide, Letters to a Teacher is an invitation into the hearts and minds of an extraordinary educator and his students, and an irresistible call to reflection for the teacher who knows he or she must be compassionate, optimistic, respectful, firm, and above all dynamic. This is an indispensable guide for teachers and layman alike.
“Perhaps the most poetic–even elegiac writing about education published in the past year. . . . Practicing teachers at all levels are likely to benefit from his well-crafted and generous prose.” –Ari Sigal, Library Journal
“Certainly teachers will enjoy and learn from these “letters.” But anyone who enjoys a short trot with a cultured mind will be glad to encounter Sam Pickering’s essays. He exemplifies the virtues he tries to impress upon his students: decency, kindness, tolerance and understanding. Plus he’s funny.” –Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
“Pickering’s odd timelessness–his ideas seem simultaneously old-fashioned and up-to-date–and his warm wisdom . . . will please educators and interested lay readers alike.” –Publishers Weekly
“Pickering does not offer solutions, rather he offers encouragement and inspiration. He reminds teachers that theirs is an important vocation. He reminds teachers that to teach is to be human and that this is the most valuable gift they can bring to the classroom. Pickering does this by sharing his humanity with us. He inspires and delights.” ––David C.
Ratke, Teaching Theology and Religion
“His writing is spry and his concerns are wide. . . . The ‘sinew and gristly of real learning” comes not just from success, but failure, Pickering observes. To his infinite credit, Pickering is trying to give us a shortcut to the former by sparing us the latter. How appropriate. That is, after all, what the most dedicated teachers do.” –John Freeman, Nashville Scene
“Pickering is a frank, well-spoken and thought-provoking man. His book is a pleasure, not just for teachers, but for all who want to explore how one human being can make a mark on the life of another.” –Anne Stephenson, Arizona Republic
“Pickering offers a series of warm and amusing reflections on the teaching life.” –Thomas Bartlett, The Chronicle of Higher Education
Praise for Sam Pickering:
“To be for a while in the company of a man with such wisdom, such wit, such an appreciation of people, of things, and such marvelous ability to express his thoughts in such elegant prose is an absolute delight.” –Chattanooga Times
“One soon becomes charmed by Pickering’s gentle, sometimes gleeful humor and then frequently moved by his wisdom and thoughtfulness.” –Library Journal
Letter One: The Teacher’s Life
The heartache of being human is that often when we act selflessly and with good intentions we bruise others. For teachers surrounded by children who at times seem sadly vulnerable the heartache rarely ends. No matter how well intentioned teachers are, they will bump those about them. Two things enable teachers to cope. The first is simply forgetfulness. Life pushes so much at us that a specific event rarely clogs the mind for a long time. In Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, Mole and Ratty search for Portly, a lost baby otter. They rescue Portly, finding him sleeping between the hooves of Pan, the deity of the natural world. Before he vanishes, Pan bestows the gift of forgetfulness upon Mole and Rat, “lest,” Grahame writes, “the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the after-lives of little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and light-hearted as before.”
Forgetfulness is a great boon.
The person forever conscious of the presence of a god can never relax and be spontaneous, cannot embody the spontaneity of consciousness that the nineteenth-century critic Matthew Arnold said brought sweetness and light into our lives, and, indeed, into the lives of others. If the mistakes of the past were always present, no teacher could act. If I recalled all the regrettable things I’ve done as soon as I woke up in the morning, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed, much less go to class. Indeed if side dishes heaped with all the tiffs of the past accompanied meals to the dinner table, marriages would not endure to dessert.
The pleasures of forgetfulness often brighten small moments. Many years ago outside an apartment in Nashville, my father and I met Norvell Skipworth and his wife unloading their car. The Skipworths had returned from a vacation in Georgia. Neither Norvell nor his wife was young, and after handing the key to the trunk of the car to his wife, Norvell turned and seeing Father said, ‘sam, good morning. This is a surprise, and how was your trip?” Norvell then paused and looked puzzled for a moment before shaking his head in mild exasperation and adding, “Aw shucks, I got that wrong. I went on the trip.”
The other matter that helps teachers bounce into class is that the real effects of teaching remain mysterious, something that complicates attempts to define good teaching. Almost never do teachers know exactly how their words, or actions, affect students. Moreover, if we really believed that everything we said shaped students, we would be too terrified to speak. Still, the ways of words and interpretations of words sometimes startle us. ‘six years have passed since I was in your class,” a girl once wrote me from Torrington, “and I want to tell you that you handled me the right way. I did not think so then, but now that I am older and have thought about it for a long time I realize you were correct. Thank you for doing me such a service.” I did not recall the girl until I looked in my grade book. She was one of fifty-four students and received a B in the course. She wrote three B+ papers, then a B, and finally a C paper. She made 86 on the final examination. In class she was silent, a faceless gray student who never talked. Indeed the semester passed without my speaking to her except when I returned papers. From my perspective the handling that I accomplished so memorably did not occur. From her point of view, an offhand remark of mine must have seemed directed at her and provoked thought that rolled through years.
Recently I taught a course on the short story. A tough-looking boy sat in the back row in the right-hand corner of the room. The boy always wore a blue baseball cap with an orange bill. Printed across the front of the cap was ‘danbury.” Instead of removing the cap when class began, the boy pushed it around so that the bill pointed behind him, toward the wall. Then he leaned forward on his elbows and glared at me for fifty minutes, his expression never changing, scorn furrowing his brow. A month after the semester ended, he came to my office. He wore the same cap. In his hand he carried an empty tin can, the top of which had been sliced off. “Hope you don’t mind,” the boy said, sitting down and then raising the can to his mouth and spitting, “I chew.” “I came to tell you,” he continued, “that your course was the best I had in this university. Funniest damn course in the world. Thought I would bust a gut laughing. Told all my friends to take it. I won’t forget you,” the boy said, abruptly standing and shifting the can into his left hand in order to shake hands. “I won’t forget you either,” I said.
To know the effects of a class upon students or rather how students think a class affects them would be disturbing. Thirty years ago at Dartmouth if I had known how my class affected Gail, my children would not be named Francis, Edward, and Eliza. I was young and unmarried. All I remember about Gail is that she had brown hair, sat in the first row, once wore a yellow dress, and that I was in love with her. I was so in love I could not bear to look at her, much less speak to her. When she missed class, the room seemed empty. At the end of the semester Gail vanished. At a reunion five years later, George, another student from that class, visited me. ‘sam,” he said, as we sat in my living room, ‘do you remember a girl in your class named Gail? She sat in the front row and had brown hair.” “Yes, slightly,” I said, feeling uncomfortable. “Goodness,” George exclaimed, “was she in love with you! The whole class knew it. Some days she couldn’t face you and wouldn’t attend. Isn’t that the darnedest thing?” “Yes, George,” I said, “the darnedest thing.”
If not the place for mongrel love, the classroom is a place for unrequited liking. More important even than knowing a subject well is the capacity for liking students. Of course exceptions exist to this and to all I write. The person teaching medical school must insure that students know the difference between heart and colon. Otherwise his pupils will perform extraordinary bypasses. Although I think personality combined with knowledge is essential in a teacher, to a great degree we teachers don’t matter. In comparison to students we exist to be outgrown and forgotten, alas, like parents. On sunny days I explore graveyards. Engraved on a tombstone I saw in Missouri was a tribute praising a man for achieving ‘sweet oblivion of self,” a state almost never achieved but perhaps one to be wished for. Although the teacher’s ‘self” affects classrooms, students matter more than we do.
I have aged into buying used books. Clean, pressed pages appear uninformed and smack of na’vet” and its sometime companion cruelty. Nowadays I prefer books worn and watermarked, tattered like me, their margins beaten into seams, their words seemingly bruised into wisdom by handling. Because I hope to find wisdom, I usually find it. Recently I bought In Nature’s Realm, published in 1900 and written by Charles Conrad Abbott, a once popular but now obscure naturalist and scientist. “Ascribe infallibility to the professor,” Abbott wrote, “and you become at best his echo, and condemn to slavery what should be free as the air, your own mind.” Abbott’s remark applies more to college and graduate students than it does to children in elementary and high school. Yet his point matters. When you and I enable children to grow beyond us and shape thoughts different from our own, we have done well.
We should take short views of life and try to help children through the present. We are not shaping, as commencement speakers tediously phrase it, “the future of America.” We are helping children. Do not look so far into the future that you lose the moment. To be sure, we frequently teach skills children will use, but more often than not we just help. At our best we broaden the possibilities of their lives. In “Tintern Abbey,” the English poet William Wordsworth described what he called “that best portion of a good man’s life / His little, nameless, unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love.” Often what children will remember from your classroom are little decencies, things you forgot as soon as you did them, things you did out of love, not out of love for an individual but out of the love that blossoms from an appreciation of this great gift called life. “When I began first grade,” a girl in one of my classes told me, “I was homesick. Every morning I had funny feelings and went to the nurse’s office, and she called Mom.” After the first week of school the principal talked to the girl’s mother. He suggested the mother pack an affectionate note into her daughter’s lunch box every day. “When I opened my lunch box and saw the notes, I was so happy,” the girl said. The funny feelings vanished, but the notes and the principal’s concern continued. Throughout the year when he saw her in the hall, the principal asked the girl if she had received a note that day. “I won’t forget him,” my student told me. “He was so kind, and that’s important.”
Sometimes, alas, your classroom will provide structure for children’s lives, structures children do not have at home, if they have homes. In general, however, our influence is more limited or is limited to lessons we often do not know we are teaching. Occasionally, though, I delude myself into thinking that I am Delphic or, as sloganeers put it, I am making a difference. Happily classrooms provide antidotes to delusions of influence.
Two years ago I taught the short story to a small class. Enrolled in the course were two members of the girls’ basketball team, one of the girls the best player in the nation. When the team won the national championship, I told friends that my inspirational teaching had so influenced the girls that, as athletic cognoscenti phrase it, they raised their game to a new level. If the girls had not taken my course, the team would have lost more games than it won, or so I said until the final examination. At the examination students wrote their names and the names of their teachers on the fronts of blue books. The best player in the nation knew her name. Alas, she thought me Mr. Peckerington. “Perhaps,” Vicki said at dinner, “your teaching did not determine the outcome of the game against Tennessee.” ‘maybe, maybe not,” I said. “Influence is difficult to determine.” You will, of course, have many names. Relish escaping mundane identity and enjoy being someone else. Mrs. Underwood will be Mrs. Underwear. Every year I teach a course on American nature writers. One day when I walked into class, I noticed the notebook of my best student. Scrawled across the top of the notebook was “Nature Writing–Mr. Pickmenose.”
Even when the going seems good to you, it may not strike students that way. This past fall I taught a course in the personal essay. I thought the first day of class went wonderfully. I knew I had performed stunningly. “How was it?” Vicki said that night. “Luminous,” I said. “I was a beacon of light.” The next day I went to the university bookstore and chatted with my friend Suzy. “One of your students wandered into my office yesterday,” she said. The boy was lost and did not know where to find books for his course. “I’m looking for a book called The Art of the Personal Essay,” he said. “What’s the name of the course?” Suzy asked. “I don’t know,” the boy said. “What’s the teacher’s name?” Suzy then asked. “Pick-something,” the boy said. “Pickering?” Suzy asked. “Yes, that’s the name,” the boy said. “Oh, you are lucky,” Suzy said. “He is a fine teacher and the class will be super.” “I dunno,” the boy replied. “I didn’t understand a single word he said today.”
Instead of disappointing, such stories free me from the anxiety of influence. Society is addicted to tracking influence, so much so that we have all come to believe in it without thinking, no matter our experiences to the contrary. Sometimes when I can’t think clearly and imagination half creates the world about me, I assume my essays influence people. About the time I begin to imagine myself a maker and shaker, perhaps even Emersonian in wisdom, a reader rescues me. ‘so that you will know what is on the minds of your readers, I am enclosing a slip of paper I found in one of your books in the Gainesville Library,” a man wrote from Florida. Three inches wide and five inches tall, the paper was pink. Written neatly in pencil atop one side was “take chicken out of freezer.”
After the appearance of Dead Poets Society, people associated me with John Keating, the teacher in the film, this despite my pointing out that characters in films and books were fictions. Repeatedly I explained that Keating was the creation of Tom Schulman, who wrote the screenplay, and not my creation, and whatever part of me that appeared in Keating was small. People hunting sources always bag game. Escaping identity with Keating was impossible. I received scores of letters. Because Keating was a nice guy, most letters were pleasant. A few, however, were salutary and kept me from forgetting my place beside the blackboard. From Canada “The Poorest–Humblest–Divine Magistrate King of All Mankind,” or as he also called himself, “The Supreme Ruler of the Sacred Planet Earth,” sent a four-page photocopied letter. “O You Intellectually and Morally Dishonest Thug of Humanity,” the Ruler began mildly before working himself into the spirit of criticism and accusing me of being a degenerated, dehumanized product of “alcoholics, prostitutes, whores, homosexuals, lesbians, satans, sinners, and power-hungry criminals.” Eventually the Ruler demanded that I hand over all my worldly goods to him to be distributed “amongst the poorest of this Sacred Planet Spaceship Earth.”
In part teaching is performance–not a performance, however, to be applauded. Applause is addictive. Because applause diverts attention from learning, it corrupts. Because teachers strut and fret the boards in front of class, celebrity can attract them. My moment before the public exhausted and sometimes frightened me. From Norfolk, a man wrote saying I was his ‘mentor.” “I was on the docks,” he recounted, ‘reading Walt Whitman’s poetry, and rain started to fall. It was a sign that I was destined to be a great poet. Soon I will come to Connecticut to sit at your feet.” “I respond by return mail,” I wrote in reply, “because unfortunately my feet will soon be out of Connecticut. By the time you receive this letter I will be in England. I am writing a book and must remain there for at least two years in order to do research.” In conclusion I stated, “Your real mentor cannot be me or any stranger. Instead your mentor should be your imagination. Coupled with hard work, imagination brings success.”
Despite daily public performances, teachers, like everyone else, live much of their lives in private. I put the man off because he seemed nuts, and I had small children. Of course publicity associated with the film also brought wonderful moments. “I was thrilled to see your name in the Journal-Constitution several months ago,” a woman wrote from Atlanta. “I sent the clipping to my grandson, and he was impressed that I knew you.” After telling me about her grandson, the woman ended, asking, ‘do you ever get to Atlanta anymore? We’d love to see you. I remember fondly the time you lived in this house while in school at Emory University.” At the time I had spent only two weekends in Atlanta in my life, and not only did I not attend Emory but I’d never visited the campus. For a moment I was not sure how to respond. I did not want to embarrass my correspondent, who seemed old and kind. Some time ago a reviewer described me as a person “not possessed of a sensibility that is needlessly trammeled by facts.” All good teachers, indeed all successful husbands, wives, and parents, quickly learn to lie. “Your letter,” I eventually began, “brought back wonderful memories of days long past.” I complimented the woman on her grandson’s successes, then concluded by thanking her for her “warm and gracious letter.” To confuse one person with another is commonplace, but in the commonplace lies magic and happiness, both in and out of the classroom.
Myth of the Great Teacher
Dealing with people as individuals is wearing, and in the attempt to make living easier society quantifies and turns people into players in a social drama: among others, the screwball scientist, the WASP, the Hispanic, the reformed rake, the ingenue, the hero, the terrorist, the booze-swilling, backroom-boy politician, and the inspirational, life-changing teacher. Outside school, fiction often depicts this teacher as a fuddy-duddy and a bumbler. In stories, though, the classroom transforms, and waving chalk and books about his head the mythological teacher becomes a Pentecostal instructor who converts students and immerses them in uplift and inspiration. Lost in the fiction of the great teacher is not simply a flawed human being but common sense. “Greatness of soul,” the essayist Montaigne wrote, “is not so much pressing upward and forward as knowing how to set oneself in order and circumscribe oneself. It regards as great whatever is adequate, and shows its elevation by liking moderate things better than eminent ones.” In other words true greatness rejects the concept of great, discovering meaning and finding happiness in the ordinary.
Because of Dead Poets Society, I receive much mail. Not long ago a young teacher wrote me from Oklahoma. He said he was having trouble inspiring his third-grade class, and he wondered if he should stand on his desk and teach “like you did in Dead Poets Society.” I winced on reading the letter. “If you stand on your desk, third-graders will probably think you have gone around the bend,” I wrote. I told the man that if he taught older children and ever stood on his desk he had better know his subject well “or else the kids will eat you alive.” I also told him to relax. ‘don’t worry so much and just have fun. Don’t take the class too seriously. People who take themselves too seriously,” I said, “often don’t accomplish much.” I wanted to write that movies were only movies, not life, but the subject was too big for a letter.
When I taught at Montgomery Bell Academy, I was twenty-four and had just spent two years at Cambridge. Hormones raced through me in spillways. I taught fifteen-year-olds, sweet children all, but still fifteen-year-olds, people with whom I could be friendly but not friends. Indeed for years I have advised students that “when somebody my age wants to be your friend, watch out.” Once after I spoke at a prep school in Perth, Australia, two eleventh-graders approached me. ‘mr. Pickering,” they said in unison, “couldn’t you be our friend? We would really like that.” “No,” I said. “I could be your teacher, not your friend. Being your teacher is much better.” “For me as well as you,” I thought. In any case at Montgomery Bell Academy I did stand on desks and climb out of windows. I did such things not so much to awaken the kids but to entertain myself. If I had fun, I suppose I thought, the boys would have fun, too, and maybe enjoy reading and writing more. Maybe they would look forward to class even on sunny days.
The effects of classroom doings are always mysterious, something that should be pounded, intellectually of course, into every legislator in the nation. Too often tests measure the ability to take tests and not much more. Years later one of the students who was in my class at MBA wrote about my teaching. One day, he recounted, when the boys showed up for class, the door was shut. When the students knocked, a voice said, “Come in, gentlemen.” They entered, but I was not in sight. Only when I said, “Take your seats’ did they realize I was under the desk. For the next fifty minutes I read Thoreau with “great gusto.” “I will never forget his admonition taken from his day of reading Thoreau from under the desk,” the man wrote. ‘do not find when you come to die that you have not lived.” The man graduated from the University of Tennessee then attended the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, after which he became a banker. The class that I taught from under the desk, just to see if I could control twenty fifteen-year-olds for an hour when I could not see them (I did) was, he stated, the most memorable class he had ever attended.
Perhaps the asinine has greater effects than the inspirational, at least in the classroom. Indeed when I see the word inspirational, I read carefully. Just before I left Australia four years ago, an aspiring teacher wrote me. “You have made an impact like the proverbial stone in the pond. It may have started as an influence on one, but has affected the course of events in many lives. This is what I find curious. How can one person inspire others? How can it be done in one lifetime?” Inspiration itself seems a word that people use when nothing else comes to mind. At worst the word forms part of the stock vocabulary of panhandlers and barkers peddling quack medicines, that is, politicians, motivators, and preachers selling cure-alls for the incurable. Or so I sometimes think. Teachers should banish inspiration from their minds and labor to be competent and kind.
Oddly, and life is wonderfully odd, sometimes the unkind plays a big part in people’s fondest memories of school. My grandfather Samuel Pickering grew up in Carthage, Tennessee, the real town, not the one sketched in my essays. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Carthage elementary school was small. Rumor swirled about the man who taught Grandfather. He had come to Carthage, children believed, from the Indian Territory, the land that later became Oklahoma. Children thought he had killed a man in the territory and had fled to Carthage to escape the hangman. In any case the teacher treated students harshly and was fond of switching boys. When a boy misbehaved, the teacher always sent another student outside to cut switches. Selecting switches was difficult. If a student cut weak switches, the teacher became mad at him. If the switches were too thick and strong, the boy being punished became angry. One day Henry Fisher misbehaved, and the teacher sent Grandfather outside to fetch switches. Grandfather said he picked the switches carefully. When he returned to the class, the teacher fondled the switches lovingly, turning them over and over in his hands. ‘sammy,” he eventually said, “these are the best switches I have ever seen, much too good for the likes of Henry Fisher, but just right for a good boy like you.” “Whereupon,” Grandfather recounted, shaking his head and laughing, “he whaled the tar out of me and made my legs bleed, even though I had done nothing wrong.”
Cant grows thicker around education than learning. For years students have walked into my classes expecting the Great Teacher. Expectation, alas, determines what they see. In class I struggle to startle and awaken. I want students to escape platitude, if only for a moment. I want reaction to me to invigorate and so provoke them into thought that they grow beyond me. I fail. Escaping platitudinous behavior and thought is impossible, in part, of course, because such behavior may be decent and good. All teachers receive warm letters from former students. The first few letters we receive brighten days, but then we begin to notice the letters are similar. Instead of thinking about us and our classes, students have tumbled into a pattern of behavior. The letters I receive invariably begin, “You don’t remember me but.” Then follows a tribute, an account of life lived, and a conclusion promising, “I will never forget you.”
Like preaching, effective teaching depends in part upon performance. Not all, but many good teachers are conjurers, delivering soliloquies, creating props with words, their voices pulling a cast of supporting characters into the classroom. For me dissatisfaction frequently accompanies the bell at the end of class. Once students vanish down the hall, I see myself as the poor player, strutting in front of children, not adults, a manipulator, not an educator or an ordinary guy fumbling through thought in order to explain or describe. Usually I feel worse when students think my classes best. At such times receiving a good letter is tonic, something that reassures and for a flicker of time makes me think myself not a complete fraud. “One time I wrote a poem for your class and apologized for it,” a woman wrote. “You wrote back a note that I have always kept. Do your best, you said, and say no more. The advice has made all the difference to me over the years.”
Despite such moments, praise is formulaic. At the final day of class this past December a student gave each member of my course a pamphlet entitled “Pickeringisms,” fourteen pages of things I’d said during the semester. Many statements were vulgar; others were silly. Instead of provoking students to anger and thought, my remarks evoked affection and the choric “we will never forget you.” No person escapes the time in which he lives. As I read the pamphlet I winced, seeing that Homeland Security had made me paranoid, imagining plots everywhere. “Bible Sunday Schools are training grounds for evangelical terrorists.” “No poet ever celebrates nostrils. Do you know why?” I asked before lowering my voice and saying, “the Communists.” Occasionally I commented on the fashionable and criticized society. “Any man over forty with a ponytail is a jackass.” “I’ve never attended a cocktail party in the South without hearing people dying of laughter over someone’s death.”
What enriches a teacher’s life, what enriches the lives of most people, are the small appointments of days, the details of which people try to remember but which ultimately slip from memory. To be sure nice letters from former students brighten the mail, but teachers ought to jettison thoughts about reputation or celebrity. I can name all the teachers who taught me, but I have forgotten their classes. Indeed much as childhood memories are fabrics of stories told to us by parents and relatives, so what I know about my first teachers comes from my parents. According to Mother, when I began to read I read from right to left, not left to right. ‘don’t worry,” Miss Courtney, my first-grade teacher, told Mother. “I will straighten his reading out.” She did. In old age Miss Courtney, like most of us, became a little strident, particularly when driving. According to story she refused to pause at four-way stop signs, saying there was no need for her to pause if everyone else stopped. After two crashes she lost her license.
Mr. Bass taught me in the sixth grade at Parmer School. Parmer has vanished, and I recall little about Mr. Bass, but I remember the eraser game. On rainy days when we could not go outside for recess, the class played the eraser game. Two children played at a time, the chaser and the chased. Both had blackboard erasers on their heads. Through the aisles they scurried, one pursuing the other until somebody’s eraser fell off or the person being chased was tagged. Twelve years ago when they reached fifty years old, my Parmer classmates held a reunion at a resort in Alabama. During the day, some fished; others played tennis. At night, however, during the banquet, they played the eraser game.
“I remember the Twinkie Lady from kindergarten,” a student told me. The woman taught special education. When the woman had lunch duty, she strolled through the cafeteria looking for children who had brought Twinkies from home for dessert. When she saw a child with a Twinkie, she seized the Twinkie and, after squeezing some of the filling onto her right index finger, wiped the cream down along the child’s nose, making a white stripe. “We loved the game,” the girl said, “and whenever people had Twinkies, they made sure they were in clear view so the Twinkie Lady would find them.” “When I was five years old, I peed my pants,” another girl told me. “That is what I remember best. I was sitting at a round table with my kindergarten class. Jason Millman was to my left and Joan Conti was directly across from me. Ms. Pender was standing in the center of the room teaching us about the life and accomplishments of George Washington.”
Lives are thick fabrics of experience, but few occupations can match that of teaching. Many of my happiest memories occurred in the world surrounding teaching, not in the classroom itself. I am comfortable in wrinkled and frayed clothes. When I was a graduate student, I looked like a walking used-clothing store. One morning after I had been at Princeton for four months, the head janitor of the Graduate College appeared at my door. In his arms he held a bundle of clothes. ‘sam,” he began, “I know what it is like to be poor and not have good clothes. I lost everything during the war, and when I came to this country from Latvia, people were wonderful. They gave me clothes and got me this job. I now own a house, and both my children have graduated from college. You remind me,” he continued, “of myself when I first came here, and I want you to have these clothes.” The man’s generosity was wondrous, and after thanking him profusely I took the clothes. The problem was that I was over six feet tall and skinny, and he was five-eight and fat. When I put his trousers on, the seat hung down like a watermelon, and the front pouched out like a leg of lamb. The legs stopped three inches above my ankles, but all this was a small matter when compared to the way his sweater fit. It gathered about my neck like a football player’s shoulder pads, and then after hanging down for four or so inches, it bunched up over my chest, giving me a formidable bosom. Of course how the clothes fit was beside the point. What mattered were the man’s generosity and his feelings. I had to wear the clothes, and wear them I did, at least twice a week until the janitor retired two and a half years later.
The niceness of such a story nearly brings a tear to the eye. As I have aged, I have grown sappy–paradoxically hard and sappy at the same time. Last year a friend with whom I have long taught told me he was dedicating his new book to me. I did not know what to say. Instead I went to my office, shut the door, and cried out of happiness. Of course not all the memories that furnish the lives of teachers are sentimental. Oddly enough many of the educational experiences that stick to mind are funny and, to use a contemporary word, inappropriate. Vicki’s father attended Princeton. He had a robust sense of humor, and the stories he told about his undergraduate days were merry. When Vicki’s father was a senior, a French professor invited him to his house for dinner. The man raised the meal like a well-wrought garden, each dish a well-tended bed blending harmoniously with the previous course. Just before dessert the man excused himself from the table and went into his bedroom. He was gone some time, and Vicki’s father assumed he was fetching a tray of liqueurs. Vicki’s father was mistaken. As he sat back in his chair, mulling the delights of Drambuie and Grand Marnier, the professor suddenly appeared in the doorway to the dining room. He was, as the British would put it, completely starkers. “Around the table and through the house he chased me,” Vicki’s father recounted. Vicki’s father escaped with both honor and sense of humor intact. He said nothing about the evening. A month later a friend came to see him. The professor had invited the friend to dinner. The professor struck the boy as strange, and knowing that Vicki’s father had eaten at the professor’s house he asked if he should accept the invitation. “By all means,” Vicki’s father said emphatically, “the man is a magnificent cook, and the evening will be a night to remember. Dessert in particular will be an astonishing surprise.”
As a teacher you will make a good living, but you will not become wealthy in financial terms. Beyond getting and spending, you will amass glittering moments. These will more than compensate for a modest income. Only the narrow and the naive are consistent, however. Although I have urged you not to overvalue tributes, sometimes notes and letters ‘make” a day, a week, or even a year. Two decades ago I spent a year teaching in Syria. The year was not easy. At the time I had not dropped the reins of ambition. Work that I wanted to do was shunted off to others, and I fretted that opportunity had passed me by. I fretted, that is, until the last day of class when a girl handed me a poem she had written. Suddenly the year seemed glorious. “Like the effect of sunset,” she wrote, “Like the gone of the moon, / Like shadwos spreading in space, / Like storms which destroy everything / Like all these things your leaving will be. / Your leaving will fill our hearts with sadness and dullness. / Your leaving will take the dynamic thing from our life. / Maybe my swords is very big for the situation, / But that is really what I feel and the truth / So you have a right by getting back home again, / But we haven’t the right to possess whom we loved. / God help you with your coming life. / God take care of you and your wife fore ever. / I want of you just to remember that there are / Students loves you and think of you forever.”
‘shadwos’ spread through all lives, and as sunny as teaching can be, dark moments abound. When I first started teaching in college at Dartmouth, I had a study on the third floor of the library. Four doors down from me, an emeritus professor named Haynie Givner had a study. Every day when I came in after class Haynie was at work. Three years passed, and then one morning Haynie came into my study. His shoulders were hunched over, and tears ran down his face. ‘sam,” he sobbed, “I don’t know what to do. This morning I finished my book.” “Haynie,” I said, “that’s splendid.” “No,” he answered, “you are too young and don’t understand. For six years I have worked on the book. If the publisher rejects it, I will have worked six years for nothing. But if he accepts it, I won’t have anything left to do, and my life will be over.” I still don’t have an answer for Haynie, at least not one that will satisfy him, or me. Ours is a problem-solving age in which people believe that if only they can find the right key any problem can be solved. The truth is not all problems are locks that can be opened, and maybe that is part of the wonder of living. You must recognize that much lies beyond your knowledge and skills.
Copyright ” 2004 by Sam Pickering. Reprinted with permission from Grove/ Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.