In praise of teachers
How valuable really are all those formative "intellectual" experiences we are supposed to have when we are teenagers or, heaven help us, college students? Pretending to be utterly enraptured by every page of Ulysses when I was 17, probably after finding it on some list of "The 10 hardest books ever"? Utterly unmemorable, except for the dirty bits and, oddly, the allusions to the Latin Mass. I have an easier time recalling the novelty breakfast item my brother used to order at McDonald's before we went to work during the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college than I do Kant's Critique of Judgment, surely the most tedious product the human imagination ever conceived.
But something like these little epiphanies do happen, I think, when we are very small. This is when we learn the sort of things we like and the sort of things we are good at. It is also when we learn how to behave like, well, human beings. The credit for this belongs to a lot of people — chiefly, one hopes, to parents and grandparents, but also to a wide variety of others. Hillary Clinton has been wrong about almost everything in her life, but not when she quoted that fake proverb about needing a village to raise a child.
I am almost absolutely cynical about American education, an expensive subsidy for the technology-entertainment industrial complex. High school seems to me a lost cause unless we can figure out how to banish all the screens and teach home economics and shop again. But even now there are hundreds of thousands of wonderful, largely unsung people doing good work with younger children.
Here I would like to mention one of my own teachers, Mrs. R. I was lucky enough to be one of her students for nearly three years, from third grade until the very end of fifth. More so than anyone save for those priests who have given me religious instruction she is responsible for making me the person I am today. Before I was in her class I thought of reading as just something I did to earn a grade, like taking spelling tests. It had not occurred to me that I might enjoy it for its own sake. Certainly I had never uttered so much as a word to an adult about anything I had read. It was at her suggestion that I first read everything from The Three Musketeers to Huckleberry Finn to Tolstoy. The world of learning and, more important, of simple pleasure she opened for me will never be closed.
Just as valuable were the things she taught me about life. She was a great stickler about manners and did not indulge laziness. But she also had no patience for rules that served no purpose and thought nothing of sending two or three of us to the grocery store down the road on random errands or telling us to put our lunches in the compost bin she rigged up behind the school instead of in the trash. A fairly radical product of the '60s herself, Mrs. R. nevertheless helped to inculcate a healthy skepticism of wooly-headed progressive thinking. Her attitude toward standardized testing was openly contemptuous. "The MEAP test will test how good you are at taking the MEAP test," she told us more than once. She understood that children need to spend a great deal of time outside, and it was not uncommon for us to take unscheduled recess breaks in the afternoon. This is how right-wing Catholic eco-paternalists are made.
Mrs. R. had a wide store of miscellaneous learning, especially on the subject of art, which I thought I could not be interested in because I was very bad at drawing. Not long before the first Star Wars prequel was released, I remember her showing me a book full of futurist and Surrealist pictures that proved to be far more interesting than the film. One day after I had tried to make a decorative border on a poster about medieval alchemy she opened a volume of drawings by, I think, Aubrey Beardsley. "This is a book full of naked ladies," she said. "Go home and tell your parents that." I didn't.
Most of us, I expect, have had someone like Mrs. R. in our lives. The idea that some children do not, because their teachers either do not care about them enough or have their hands tied by our wicked educational establishment fills me with sadness. Any fool can prepare a bunch of upper-middle-class swells to take exams. Patiently explaining to a 9-year-old that the hero's name is not pronounced "Dart-again"? Please. The entire GDP of the United States could be expended in a vain attempt to reckon the cost of this and a thousand other things people did for me when I was very small. Some costs can never be calculated, just as some debts can never be repaid except with endless gratitude.
Thank you, teachers.