He Could Always Teach: An English Professor's Education in Fifty Vignettes Print E-mail

Weston-Self_Portrait(Compiled Spring 2000)


Herb Caen, the great San Francisco Chronicle columnist for close to fifty years, liked to retell an anecdote about our society’s estimation of its teachers. It seems Caen was having lunch one day with his cronies at Enrico’s Coffee House when the great novelist John Steinbeck joined them. Steinbeck had just arrived in the city on his trip west, a journey which would form the basis for one of his most beloved books, Travels With Charley, a road-trip adventure story starring Steinbeck and his poodle companion.

"When Charley and I were driving through the redwood country," the famous author said, "I looked around till I found the largest redwood in the area—an absolute beauty, probably two thousand years old, a considerable tree before Christ was born. And then I let Charley out of the camper so he could go and pee on that tree. Now I ask you, gentlemen, what is left in life for that dog?"

There was a silence which brought nods to the sublime. Nothing could top such a holy moment for Charley or the group. Finally, an advertising executive at the table named Howard Gossage said, "He could always teach."


I had a student once who took a full load of classes in the day and danced naked at Pacers, a strip club in Kearny Mesa, most evenings (so she told me early in the semester). She hated men with a palpable disgust, snickering whenever anyone made a point about a father as a breadwinner or a loving parent or a good husband or a man who valued the companionship of women. Her person essay was about her father’s incest with her; her causal analysis essay focused on sexual harassment. One day, in the career center when the class was researching schools for transfer, she told me that she wanted me to redefine the assignment so that she could pick only women’s colleges. "Why only schools for women?" I asked. "Because," she said, laughing, "men are bugs."


From one side of the Confucian mouth comes the saying, "When the pupil is ready to learn, the teacher will come." And from the other side, "There is a special room reserved in hell for easy teachers."


Why do we spend so much of our lives in classrooms, at what only a few of us identify as living, at what most consider to be a pursuit which more often than not stifles intellectual curiosity, begets senseless competition and the oily grub for grades and attention, usually brings our self-regard down, not up, delays us from the lifelong jobs we all have to have with debt, testing, performance anxiety, the dumbness of drab classrooms, molded-alike desks, boorish peers and the great averaging experience of American democracy in which woe to those who excel far above or fall far below their peers? Why don’t we ask the question why is it we need to sit in classrooms for six hours a day, one hundred eighty days a year, from the time we’re five until we’re twenty-five—a total of 21,600 hours or roughly one-fifth of our waking lives?

The reason we never ask the question is, we need to believe either economically or romantically that school prepares us for life. But who has not rejected that belief at some point in his or her school career? Doesn’t life happen while we’re in school and isn’t such life in school never quite what it could be? And where did we learn that there is more to life than school? After school? On the weekends? Over summer? No. We learned it in school. I think that’s what our teachers were busy teaching us.


Theresa comes to see me during my office hour. A smile anchors her large, round face where a touch of purple eye shadow and purple lip gloss make her seem both under- and overstated. She is pert and soft: thick brown hair, puffy, clear cheeks, small compact body. She wears a very fuzzy green turtleneck sweater. Teddybear adorable, perhaps precious.

Visiting me I recognize may be difficult for her, although she is, as far as I can tell, not nervous. I don’t want to give her (or others) too much of that professorial speech which I sometimes run like tap water. Of course, she waits for me to begin.

What shall we discuss? Her paper. The grade? Oh no, just go over the comments, so I can learn to do it better. There are a lot of comments. O.K. I find word choice and organization first, and I sketch out examples of how to choose and how to structure more wisely. She sits politely through the mini-lecture. No other student is waiting so I linger, too. Why? Helping her with her writing is not entirely what she wants, I sense. There’s more. Maybe she’s hoping to find something she can’t nail down herself. Students are nothing if not searchers. Or maybe she is working me for a grade, laying on the devotion to my comments too deliberately. I can’t ask her if this is true because it’s too presumptive. Unlike other students who sometimes itch to leave once they’re clear about the problem they came in with—take a spoonful of paragraph coherence and call me tomorrow—Theresa seems to grow more contented the more I speak. She is easing comfortably into her chair, leaning back, hands quietly in her lap, mesmerized by my diction. Maybe I am falling for her falling for me.

There is an attraction here. Am I making it up? Am I pushing beyond the student-teacher boundary? Is she attracting me, and do I feel it to the point of acting different from my role? I am not engaging her in discussion because she doesn’t want to discuss. She wants to listen and soak up and doesn’t want to leave. And I believe I’m illustrating the standards of good writing with which I will judge her on her next assignment. Is that it? I feel permission in my voice which she is trolling for, the knowledge that I have gone through what she is attempting, that she wants to be sure by observing me that study, writing, persevering through school has its lasting benefits. Her softness and fuzzy green sweater are absorbing all this and still she doesn’t make a move to go. And now I know I am imagining her as much I am discovering who she is. But I am imagining her not so much against her will, but with it, and with the will of my younger self who once sat fully engaged, sensualized by the body and voice of a teacher whose subjects, writing and literature, would grow to entrance me beyond measure. Is Theresa in love with what I am in love with and, therefore, are we in relationship already? Is this why she keeps looking through her paper for one more of my comments she’ll hope I’ll respond to like tender touches to her sweater or maybe her arm, her face, her purple lips?


 "How Socrates Became Mr. Holland"

Socrates, that peripatetic lover of contradiction and corrupter of the minds of youth, one day produced such vast quantities of truth by asking questions that he begat the scribe who wanted to take down his every word which then begat the reader who wanted to adore those words and eventually the scholar who wanted to study the meaning such brilliant exchanges themselves begat which, in turn, begat more and more scribes until eventually the publisher was born, who wanted to package the philosopher’s thought so he begat the army of candle-burning monks, copying texts and slowly losing their eyesight, who—trust me, I need to speed this up—begat Gutenberg who begat the industrial revolution and, worse, the church bureaucrats who had, while no one was looking, replaced the questions of the great philosophers with a catechism of prescribed thoughts and duties and rather easily, why we seem not to question anymore, converted the master artist into a church apprentice, the artisan into a factory worker, and the philosopher-scholar into a career teacher which—it’s time to fast forward—begat the American high school, the contextualization of adolescent rebellion and capitalist day care which, in turn, produced a culture that said it valued parental involvement but really wanted the TEACHER to do it all and thus sacrifice himself or herself for the good of the student, so to convince ourselves this is a good idea, we need an exemplum of the great contemporary co-dependent self-negating teacher, not Stand and Deliver’s Jamie Escalante or Dangerous Minds’ LouAnne Johnson, although who wouldn’t want to be candy-bar-ed into doing their homework by Michelle Pfeiffer, no, we need someone less selfish, more sentimental, how about making him a music teacher, with a deaf son, a deferential wife, students with only music problems, avuncular colleagues, and to nail it down, let’s get Richard Dreyfuss, the guy who outwitted JAWS, to be him, Mr. Holland, altruistic teacher, who spends stolen guilt-ridden moments of his thirty-five year career in the classroom writing one five-minute piece of music which—How Amazing!—sounds just like the score to the movie.

Would Socrates have appreciated how perfectly Mr. Holland has corrupted us with the idea that the sheer amount of a teacher’s selflessness is the most important factor in our education or would he, too, have drowned in the sentiment?


Great Teacher Number One:

The working artist.

The teacher as working artist, master, guildsman, artisan, the bricklayer of forty years’ experience who watches you, the apprentice, and your every circuit of the trowel—the profession itself as classroom. It’s hard these days to find artists who come bearing their contexts intact. Some novelists, reporters and painters like to boast that their experience has taught them all about the merciless professional world and, as part of their teaching, they can pass such advice on to their students. But the contexts—the frenzied world of the publisher, the daily insanity of the newspaper, the juried marketplace of the gallery—are so far removed from the colleges that our schools have become little more than a haven, perhaps an escape, for artists with tenure who more often than not have lost to teaching that creative push which working on deadline demands.

The best example of the working artist as teacher, which I know of, was Frank Lloyd Wright whose professional and pedagogical mastery were inseparable. I am thinking of his schools, the first at Taliesin, in Wisconsin, established in 1932, and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, begun in 1958. (Both are still in business.) At these schools, young architects resided and actually worked alongside Wright on projects which the school as a for-hire architectural firm contracts. At the Taliesins, students apprenticed themselves for one or two years, or longer, designed elements within actual buildings under Wright’s direction, and learned the process of teamwork first hand. Teamwork, of course, teaches that no one architect can do everything; they must share the macro and micro intricacies of design. Moreover, just "being an architect" was not enough for Wright. He also insisted that each apprentice add another expressive pursuit—painting, singing, music (which Wright loved most of all) or theater. As part of their enrollment, students had to perform or else do something other than just drafting. John Howe has remarked (in Patrick J. Meehan’s Frank Lloyd Wright Remembered) that "In joining the Taliesin Fellowship, apprentices were required to bring a hammer, a saw, and a good spirit. All work was to be considered creative, not menial, whether one was working in the drafting room or in the kitchen." Like Ezra Pound, Wright believed that the artist was made from the whole person, not the person isolated "in college," a waiting room outside the office of his or her passion.

How often through the years and with his many famous creations did Wright practice alongside those to whom he preached! His Johnson Wax Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, the hundreds of homes he designed like Falling Water or those in Oak Park, Illinois, his birthplace, were in many cases co-crafted by his professional and student architects who worked beside him T-square and compass. Aaron G. Green, in Meehan’s oral history, recalled this about Wright’s "teaching":

Since everyone lived together and worked together, we could hardly have been any closer. It was a 24-hour day. We would see Mr. Wright at mealtimes and at worktimes. It was an extremely intimate relationship. . . .

Mr. Wright enjoyed talking to individuals and groups, and we would sit at his knee listening. Wherever we were—at lunch, in the drafting room, working in the fields—he came around. He was always around . . . . Whatever the activity, he had an interest in it, whether it was pulling weeds or mowing the hay or cleaning the barn or whatever it was.

He had no pedagogical method . . . . It was certainly a process of teaching, learning by participation and by absorption and by emulation and, I suppose, by osmosis. By being a part of [it], you were participating in his creative activities, in a sense: the development of the buildings directly under his thumb. This is a highly effective learning process, I think. There were no lectures or classes in any formal way. All the youngsters were so damn dedicated that I think they were really sponges absorbing everything that was around. There was more work to be done than anyone could possibly handle. There was never any necessity for making any kind of work for educational purposes [italics added].


Helen Hogan. I keep repeating her name to myself after reading it off the roster; she is not present on the first or the second day of class. Helen Hogan. Hogan’s Heroes, Hogan’s Bluff, Ben Hogan—I think, something mighty and Western and individual in that name.

Then for the third class she shows up. Fifty-year-old platinum blonde, a scooped-cut black dress with a sunflower pattern, a freckled neck. She asks questions every few minutes, the questions somewhere between daffy and depressed. She says, I am in the right classroom, aren’t I? The other students laugh. She gets up in the middle of things and leaves. Then, ten minutes later, she comes back, the class still going, and says, I forgot my backpack and leaves again. I cannot stop to rescue her.

Next morning she phones and says she’s having trouble remembering who she is. Then, a day later, she phones again, saying now she remembers who she is and she’ll be in class. That’ll be fine, I say. Before the class, she catches me outside. She is shuffling through a plastic folder and variously colored pages of prescription drug information and says, behind severely orange-tinted glasses, "The doctors have not gotten my memory right," and she laughs, "I mean my medicine right. The prozac works but the other stuff is making me forget—" She turns to leave and stumbles, then stares at me as though seeing me for the first time. "Oh, Mr. Larson, your eyes are so beautiful that I—"


Does anyone else think as I do that our institutional schooling in America often rolls in reverse of its intent to produce enlightened citizens? I remember myself in kindergarten, a clear, eager, democratic, solitude-loving intelligence who, when finishing college in his thirties, had become a lost, frightened, hypocritical, deluded little boy.


Stoner, the main character of John Williams’ novel of the same name, is a lifelong teacher at the University of Missouri. During his tenure in the thirties, forties and fifties, his job is to lecture about writing and literature on a raised platform and, thus, inspire his students to produce good work. He comes to his vocation unexpectedly when he himself graduates from the university. One day he is told by his mentor, Mr. Sloane, that except for one B in an English literature survey course, his straight A’s mean that he is qualified to work toward a Master of Arts, after which he can teach while he pursues his doctorate.

Stoner drew back. "What do you mean?" he asked and heard something like fear in his voice.

Sloane leaned forward until his face was close; Stoner saw the lines on the long thin face soften, and he heard the dry mocking voice become gentle and unprotected.

"But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?" Sloane asked. "Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher."

. . . Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, "Are you sure?"

"I’m sure," Sloane said softly.

"How can you tell? How can you be sure?"

"It’s love, Mr. Stoner," Sloane said cheerfully. "You are in love. It’s as simple as that."


Midway through the book, after several years of teaching, Stoner decides one day that "it might be possible for him to become a good teacher." But this will happen only when he becomes "aware of the gulf that lay between what he felt for his subject and what he delivered in the classroom." He reasons, for Stoner is a reasoning man, that were he to begin taking chances he might rediscover that enthusiasm for his subject which he has sadly misplaced. So he begins to speak freely in class, becoming

forgetful of his inadequacy, of himself and even of the students before him. . . . At first he was disturbed by his outbursts, as if he presumed too familiarly upon his subject, and he apologized to his students; but when they began coming up to him after class, and when in their papers they began to show hints of imagination and the revelation of a tentative love, he was encouraged to do what he had never been taught to do. The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print—the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly.


In the middle of the novel the department politics take over. Stoner has become the scapegoat of Mr. Gordon, the Department chair, who, because Stoner failed one of Gordon’s prize students, relegates Stoner year after year to teach the same four courses. To get back at Gordon, Stoner has an affair with one of the graduate students, a former student in fact. When Gordon learns of the affair, he realizes that because of the liaison’s impropriety and the talk on campus, he can quite easily have her dismissed from her teaching assignment in the English department. He tells Stoner, but Stoner stalls, not knowing what to do. He won’t quit, and he won’t leave his wife. So Gordon dismisses the young woman and she leaves.

Now, to pay Gordon back, Stoner hatches a scheme against the students. He is, as always, assigned to teach freshmen composition, far distant from his first love which is Medieval and Renaissance English literature. So he tell his students on the first day that their texts will comprise a book of Medieval verse and prose and a book of Medieval literary criticism.

"The primary matter of this course," Stoner said, "will be found in the . . . anthology; we shall study examples of medieval verse and prose for three purposes—first, as literary works significant in themselves; second, as a demonstration of the beginnings of literary style and method in the English tradition; and third, as rhetorical and grammatical solutions to problems of discourse that even today may be of some practical value and application."

By this time nearly all the students had stopped taking notes and had raised their heads; even the intelligent smiles had become a trifle strained; and a few hands were waving in the air. Stoner pointed to one whose hand remained steady and high, a tall young man with dark hair and glasses.

"Sir, is this General English One, Section Four?"

Stoner smiled at the young man. "What is your name, please?"

The boy swallowed. "Jessup, sir. Frank Jessup."

Stoner nodded. "Mr. Jessup. Yes, Mr. Jessup, this is General English One, Section Four; and my name is Stoner—facts which, no doubt, I should have mentioned at the beginning of the period. Did you have another question?"

The boy swallowed again. "No, sir."


In the end Stoner is broken by his inspired and tragic affair and the fact that his wife accepted his infidelity with perhaps the worst response of all—benign neglect. He is also broken by the competitiveness of scholarship, the hunt for star pupils to recommend to the prestigious graduate schools back east and his attaining, after forty years, no higher than the rack of assistant professor. Here is Stoner’s death-bed assessment of his life in the classroom.

And he had wanted to be a teacher, and he had become one; yet he knew, he had always known, that for most of his life he had been an indifferent one. He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance. And what else? he thought. What else?

What did you expect? he asked himself.


One student’s response to the work or works of literature I should keep in my literature course.

"Antigone" would get my vote as a piece of literature you should keep in your program. The others I felt were okay to read but they lacked something. If you were going to use new stuff then I would choose stuff by Milton or Chaucer or Shakespeare. Get some real classics in there. Otherwise "Antigone" would be your only play by a remembered author that they would recognize. The others I think were a little obscure with the exception of some of the short stories. The translation of "Antigone" is easy to read and it is not difficult to follow the story. Especially if you’ve read "Oedipus the King." It’s not too long and it’s well written.


Her name is Arianna, whom I have put in the dunce spot of staying after creative writing class to speak with me, says before I can say why, "I know you wanted me in the circle to comment on Phillip’s writing, but I can’t comment on his story because it disgusts me." She is an older woman, my age, with dreadlocks and dark brown eyes. There’s a fierceness about her like one who clerks the night desk at the ywca. "It’s his language that repels me," she goes on, putting her folder and books on a desk so her hands are free to gesture at me: "—the language of addicts, using shit and fuck incessantly, typing women as no more than whores for dope. I’ve heard it a hundred times before, and it doesn’t deserve my attention."

I shouldn’t be surprised she’s upset. Her objection, though, is rare. "Were you to tell him this," I say, "he might understand more about his audience than he realizes."

"But I’m not his audience," Arianna says, thrusting her palms up. "When I go to a book store or a library, I don’t reach for that kind of trash on the shelf. I read what I want to read. There’s nothing that tells me I have to read or listen to something I abhor."

"Don’t you risk censoring yourself?" I say.

"I don’t buy that. It’s a matter of taste. Nothing more. I have a right not to subject myself to things I find objectionable. Like slasher films or drug pushers. Neither you nor the school can force me to read him." Her eyelids narrow; she doesn’t move.

"But what will Phillip do for you when it comes your turn?"

"I don’t care if he responds to me. He can ignore me like I ignore him." I expect a self-satisfying smile from her—and one appears.

"Why are you here, then?" This may never be a good question to pose this early to any student.

"Most people in this class," she says, evading me, "will not write such drivel."

"In my experience," I say, "many students write about their lives, their addictions, their failures, the seamy side of city life—and it’s graphic. This is an urban campus."

"But I’ve heard so much of that crap, that psycho-stream-of-consciousness babble from addicts and people in treatment. It revolts me."

How adamant her complaint! How righteous her refusal! Still, I want to end our tetchy chat. And compromise. "Can you at least put your disdain into a one-sentence comment?" I ask.

"Literature, whether you know it or not," she continues, professorial herself—and pointing at me—"is about quality and readability as much as it is about artistic liberty. In fact, literature, the stuff that survives, has that quality about it which is equal to the reader’s desire to read it. This is foremost, even for a class of creative writers."

Said with aplomb, she leaves.

Putting her objections aside for the moment, I’m invigorated by her being in my class. In the ensuing weeks I hope to talk more with Arianna about the "reader’s desire to read it." Perhaps this will give me a whole new way of thinking about what’s "creative" in "creative writing." Indeed, I appreciate people like her who spark such important differences. Our culture has championed artistic freedom sometimes to the absurd point of obliterating judgment so that we recognize—uphold, even champion—whatever is freely expressed. Recent cultural history bears this out. In a value-neutral climate of multiculturalism and arts’-groups’ rights, few were eager to discuss the artistic quality of Andres Serrano’s "Piss Christ" once the debate over its funding began. The perception of porn in Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs and Calvin Klein’s advertisements had more relevance to moral corruption of the young and free-speech issues than it did to the camera’s complex mix of beauty and adolescent daring. And yet, it is vital to include in the question, What is Art? the consequences of asking such a question for the good or ill of our society. Which desires do the processes and products of artistic creation make us most uncomfortable and "need" limiting?

But Arianna’s complaint is not about what can or cannot be published. Her complaint is simpler, more subtle, more individual: It is about asserting her right to refuse to read objectionable content above or, at least, parallel to an author’s right not to be censored. A question of taste, yes.

Two weeks later Arianna has still not returned. Then I receive word that she’s dropped the course, I suspect immediately after our talk. I lament the fact that I confronted her lack of participation too early. Arianna is the truly articulate participant I wanted to listen to as much as the occasional articulate creator, in this case Phillip, the oppositional beatnik writer whose rampant obscenity and existential rant drove her away. He stays in the course because his outrageousness gets attention. Others find him a kick. Arianna drops no doubt because she feels her rebuke of Philip warrants no serious attention from me or the class. I’m left wondering, have I sided more with the author’s right to be heard than the listener’s?

But then had I raised the issue of Phillip’s cussing and realism to class members (which, raised in previous classes, usually yielded discussion of the author’s rights and responsibilities, not the listener’s), the students would have dismissed Arianna’s peevishness and, without acrimony, put her in her place. They would have said, Hey, it’s a free country. You don’t have to listen to it if you don’t want to. That’s cool. But let’s compromise and we’ll respect your preference. Before handing out new work, the author-reader might warn us of any iffy content in his or her poem or story, and we’ll decide for ourselves to stay or leave.

On the other hand, I think that it’s better Arianna didn’t get her way. She may have wanted the course to produce a kind of ready-made expurgated writing with proven shelf-life like the Ten Commandments or the essays of Montaigne. And when the course, that is, the student writers, didn’t create such microwaveable classics, she high-tailed it back to the bookstore where the safe shelves sag under the weight and banner of: Books To Have Survived Their Offensiveness.

Perhaps I criticize her unfairly. But, with her departed, I’ve lost the challenge of helping her see that student writers are just that: They need a place, a critically non-threatening place, to make mistakes long before their chapbooks are rejected or published. And yet I also want to invite her back to the classroom. My reasons are several, though they are not easy to express.

One is balance. I want her back because although we have had a writer-supported class without her, we no longer had a reader-oriented one. I hoped Arianna was the perfect student, combining the public or responsible listener/reader with the artist’s courage, proud of her refusal, daring to be different. With Arianna present, the issue of taste and preference in all our discussions may have been foremost. Simply put, I hoped she would be our most critical reader. At least, that’s the fantasy.

I want to believe that Arianna’s difference will allow us to exercise our critical options more evenly, allow me to remind students that writers must face much ugliness when their work goes public, if it ever does, in coffeehouse reading or in print. They may find that not everyone will love them. Unlike "creative writing," those outside who don’t love them will say so.

And then no doubt there’s the real reason I want her back—to relieve me of this impossibly difficult, feet-in-concrete position as the teacher. The great snag I feel as The Instructor is put best by a fellow teacher who, in response to my story of Arianna’s refusal, reminds me in an e-mail just how unique the classroom setting is. Our courses, she writes, whether comp or creative, come "with rules implied. The student is held captive in a sense by the power wielded by the professor who gives the grade. The student cannot really exercise his or her rights to not read or participate, fearing danger of losing points for good grades. So everything is somewhat of a sham—postured interest or enthusiasm for discussion of material based on a student’s desire to get the grade, perhaps at the sacrifice of the student’s own sensibilities or moral code. The arena of the classroom is not the same as the environment of the outside world where one can freely exit a bookstore, a disturbing conversation, forfeit paid admissions to the movies without much penalty."

I want Arianna back to lessen the notion that despite my attempts to deny it, the classroom will always be "somewhat of a sham."


"Grime and Punishment"

Beijing—A teacher in central China was sentenced to two years in jail for forcing his students to eat cow dung, according to an official news report.

The fourth-grade teacher forced his students to eat dung when they handed in assignments late, didn’t pay attention in class or fought. Of his class of 34, only two with good grades and five who were related to him escaped punishment, the report said.

Associated Press


Nova was quivering mad when she spoke to me after class.

"I don’t appreciate your tone," she said. "It’s as though you’re punishing me for not bringing the book." I had been badgering the class because so many didn’t bother to carry the two required texts. The one I used a lot that day was the little 42-page booklet, my handout Bible.

"I don’t want to be treated like I’m in high school," she said, turning to look at the near-empty classroom. "This is just like high school," she uttered disdainfully. "I know all this; it’s just review." All this was Intermediate Composition.

I sensed that she was pissed more about being stuck in a dumb community college class than by my laying it on so thickly. I took a middle approach. "I’m sorry Nova, but these texts are required."

"O.K., they’re required. But I don’t see why I have to carry something more with me, everyday, that I already know."

How in the world can you know what is in our textbooks, I thought. No, that’s not it. No one’s that ignorant. Well, maybe.

"I don’t appreciate your tone," she barked again. Was she finished with me? I hoped. In her tight pullover top, her belly-button ring and those ripped-open-at-the-knees jeans, threads-a-dangling, she stirred the pot of arrogance, Notice me, that she was enjoying this, Notice how I can get the teacher! that feral look and savage instinct unbuttoning themselves before my eyes—my daddy’s a lawyer and he said I have rights in this class I thought her next claim would be, but I also wanted to stay with this rapacious student who was out to chisel my authority and perhaps one day be celebrated for her blow against the empire. Oh yes, I recall Nova. She was the one who got to me.

The code I try to live by while teaching, which I observe maybe eighty percent of the time at best, is simply never try and change anyone. Nova was one of the easier people not to attempt to alter. "Good for you," I said. "I appreciate your anger about being in a class which is no doubt nothing more for you than review. I’m glad you understand that. Now, remember to bring both texts with you to every class."


Sheila had the longest finger nails I had ever seen, so Freddy-Kruger long that they curled like question marks around her pen when she tried to write in class and usually came up bare-paged, though she kept trying she said. I couldn’t help but listen to that click-click on the desk when we wrote together in class. Sheila did very little of the weekly reading and writing assignments; no, in fact, she did none of it; she so happened to be a part of a class which on day one had thirty-five students but by week eight was down to fifteen. The day before she dropped out Sheila approached me angrily, spreading her claws out as wide as a gnarled oak branch to indicate the entirety of those gone from the course. "Why have so many people dropped this course?" Her eyes glared at me like burnished torches. "Mr. Larson, what in the world is wrong with you?"


O.K. maybe it was a stupid thing to do, but there are worse sins than bringing up O.J. Simpson and the trial of the century, which actually hadn’t quite begun when I brought it up with a class of black and white and Asian and Hispanic students, bone-weary of grammar, and poppin’-fresh eager to discuss something, anything. Why not, I thought, have at some of the disequilibrium in our perceptions about race, interracial marriage, gender and domestic violence?

The questions I posed the class, written in five-feet long sentences on the chalkboard, I thought were simple enough: What do I know about the O.J. Simpson trial? Do I have an opinion about his guilt or innocence? If so, what is it? What do I know about the issue of domestic violence? What would I tell a friend who is in an abusive relationship?

We wrote for seven minutes (about all this class of basic writers could stand) then discussed their ideas first in groups, then as a class. Give everyone a chance to talk and stay on the topic, I reminded them.

Forget it. The class erupted in a storm of shouting chaos. Neck and forehead veins swelled; people slapped their desks for emphasis: "Hah! You got no idea what a black woman feel for her man!"

Suddenly it was open discussion—open season—which I tried pathetically to steer. Dump the pedagogy; try Jerry Springer. Tonisha, the black woman who felt so for her man, shouted out, "Shut up everybody and listen, listen! No black woman woulda ever been beaten in a relationship with a black man. That’s the truth, goddamit." Monique piped in: "Toni right. A black woman woulda stood up to him the first time that man or any man slap her."

Patty, usually demure and quiet, asked with that excuse-for-me-living tone in her voice, "You’re not saying that his wife, because she was white, was somehow responsible for what she got?"

"I’m saying," Tonisha responded, "that woman probably had more coming to her than we know about." Ho-hoooooooooo came the taunts.

Sharon started fan-waving the air with all her ninety-five pounds, yelling, "Listen. My brother been in jail seventeen years for murder, which he did do, and he still think someone else did it. He like O.J. He don’t ever admit he be the killer."

More students erupted, stood up and shouted; a few covered their mouths with both hands as though their own words might be grenades. I yelled out, trying with humor to keep the lid on, "Hey! Rikki Lake goes to college." A smattering of laughs followed by more vocal jabs—listen, listen. To me? To each other? To the truth? "Please," I found myself near to begging, "raise your hands and I’ll call on you. Self-control, huh? This is college." To hell with that. The loudest ones kept turning the screws because something much more important than college had opened up, something much deeper than race. It was about sexual passion infused with rage, the hormonal Armageddon people fear more than war, I thought. What I feared and indulged in that moment, foolishly perhaps, was to let something go which for once mattered to them, not the curriculum.

Indeed, that day I understood that the kind of killing Simpson was accused of is not random, but real, daily, called-for at times in some people’s hearts, an expression of what it means to love someone all the way. Not that it’s right, but since when was love about being right or sensible or innocent. Love’s ultimate expression, some seemed to be saying, may be murder.

Long about the moment all of this had come out and the shouting kept going back and forth with one-half of the class knowing what it was saying, at least, according to that half and the other half, saying bullshit, you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, long about that same moment I was getting really nervous that Pandora would not go back in her box, not now, not ever, Jermaine was on his feet, in the aisle, bouncing to some unseen rap pulse as though he were one of those Disneyland animatronic figures in a tableaux from the Golden Age of Multicultural Education in the Late Twentieth Century, screaming "Oo, Oo, Ooo," and we all stopped to listen. "Hey. Check it out," he said. "She know I love her, man—I tole her that just before I slit her throat!" Yeah! And Jermaine, well, he got a standing ovation.

Maybe now I understand a little more clearly why O.J. was found innocent and guilty.


"A Letter to McNamara"

 by Richard Colmenero

My teacher said I should write you about what I told him (privately) so I will.

It began with me watching a man on some TV show and then me telling my teacher what he said which was we the people of America were celebrating and what a strange word to use he said all these anniversaries of our many wars this spring.

What I got from him was that the events being remembered had to do with stopping a war or a protest to stop a war or a turning point in the war like a battle or a surrender or some get together by the leaders from the countries with the biggest guns who tried and failed and made sure the war came on anyway.

Or if it was none of the above then it was the anniversary of them building some wall or statue to remember the men who died in the war.

And I started wondering out loud to my teacher why the wars keep happening everywhere when their beginnings, middles and ends are always being remembered as if to say there’s only this one thing we have to remember in America or the world for that matter because you hear Germany and England and Japan and France and Vietnam and Russia and everyone on earth it seems is remembering to remember what they ought to be forgetting.

Anyone would know if they thought about it that a person who went to war and died or lived to tell about almost dying wouldn’t want to remember it and my teacher laughed and agreed with me. But people do.

And it’s the war they remember not the absence of it that I don’t get.

It’s like in my family (this is the beginning of the private part) where my dad left when I was little and my mother married again this man my stepfather who she said when she thought about it more than she did at the time was not much different than the first man my father but the second man my stepfather stayed around just long enough to drive my mother a little bit crazier than she already was and then he left too.

And when they let her out of that treatment program for I don’t want to say what the first thing she said she wanted me to do was never to discuss it nor the anniversary of when both he’s left us and when she went in and when she came out.

Can you imagine my family on TV and the whole world is remembering what my mother wants to forget and she finally has to throw up her arms and start screaming no stop it stop it like my real father did? Forget it. My teacher agreed with me on this one hundred percent.

Speaking of dads I really don’t remember mine.

My real one left when I was three or four and my mother says that he was in and out of our house because he came back from Vietnam and it was the nightmares and the sweats and the reliving something he couldn’t quit reliving every night which I don’t remember him doing but she says was true enough.

That was when she said they thought the best way to get over his war was to forget that it ever happened and not say anything to the soldiers when they came back like the war was this mess that was so horrible that it’s better to forget messes that bad just like the bathroom gets dirty so you just close the door and that’s that.

It makes sense to me to forget it but the people of America according to this guy on the TV show I was watching won’t or no he said they can’t forget probably because they feel so guilty and there’s that word again that the only good it ever does is to suck everyone me and my friends included plus my teacher into thinking about it.

And it’s funny that they wonder why we get depressed and think life is not worth living and want to stand around by ourselves in the mall or on the street corner or waste time (which it’s not) blowing smoke in the parking lot.

It’s so morbid who in the hell wants to watch adults with their heads down all the time remembering those who died and how many and how young and this is where you McNamara come in how wrong you were to go to war when you did and now you understand that that if only you knew now what you didn’t know then. My teacher says it was all all of it a hugely unspeakable lie and I am writing to you to say I agree.

And the next thing the man on the TV show said was that we always seem to have these fifty year old guys and that’s when he mentions you by name McNamara who are directing the war like it’s some Oliver Stone movie and then when these guys like you McNamara get to be eighty you’re so afraid God won’t accept you into glory you write a book and tell all the mothers and fathers and wives and children you were wrong to have started and kept the war going when you did and then you confess because and this is what my teacher reminded me that that’s what old war-sick men in this country love more than anything to do, confess, you confess that while you were bombing the crap out of the enemy and taking over a village one week from the communists and somebody died and then the village got taken back the next week by the communists and then another somebody died and sending in thousands and thousands more soldiers probably both my dad and my step-dad among them a few years before I was born you confess you knew it was all wrong and you knew you could never win it and you were afraid to tell the truth because I love this and so does my teacher nobody would have believed you and so you told nobody not a soul not even your own.

And you McNamara want me to remember that war.

You want me to remember that you should be remembered for owning it.

And then if I don’t remember that or think about your owning it enough your children or your children’s children will probably go to war again as a punishment for me and my friends not paying attention so we’ll have some war of our own to remember.

And finally you wonder McNamara and so do all those who follow you why my friends and me walk on by with head down or shut the textbook pronto at ten till or veg in the cafeteria and mutter so nobody really hears it what’s the use.


Three quick comments about the instructor (me) and the course.

1. If you don’t know about Christianity, at least don’t mock it by "wise-crack" type comments. Try to be more neutral and stop trying to instigate doubt and confusion in the students.

2. Larson knows his stuff. I give him a thumbs up. I would have liked to have seen him in the ’60s, though.

3. Mr. Larson, you are the first teacher who has ever given me a chance to express my own feelings and ideas in class. You did not turn english into a science like many teachers that I have had before you. You require a lot of work, but I guess that is how college is. Also you’re not a woman. I think that woman english teachers sometimes get too emotional about subjects.


Moments of deep satisfaction do occur while reading a student’s work:

Monica Courdurier, a first-year literature student, wrote a ten-page paper contrasting the independent spirit and devotion to family of Ántonia Shimerda in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. By hand, Monica placed a tenderly tilted mark on every capital A of the character’s name, dozens of times throughout the paper, making sure the accent was seen and heard as Ántonia each time I read it.

Lidia Contreras, a developmental student in English, had had a liver transplant, a terribly painful skin disease and a degenerative condition in her writing hand and arm which required surgery—all in the space of a year. And yet no one ever heard her complain. In fact, she took the final (and aced it) a day after she was released from the hospital, her arm in a sling. I read her two-paragraph final exam with a magnifying glass, the pencil indentation were so light. The spelling, the syntax, the support, the topic sentences, the mechanics—everything was perfect. She even wrote me a thank you note, saying how much she appreciated my teaching.


 "Why I Want a Cop"

 (a rant, after Judy Syfers’ essay "Why I Want a Wife")

Why do I want a cop, a hard-nosed, super-authoritarian, thick-skinned, sympathy-bashing, by-the-book, non-manipulable, unyielding, inconsolable COP? Why does a college writing teacher need a cop?

You probably think teachers are half-cop already, that sternness and a drive to regulate others is already in their nature so, therefore, discipline is natural. Or that if not half-cop, then teachers are certainly much-jaded with students who believe their individual rights come before that of the class’s right and therefore demand discipline by who else? which, in turn, is only proof that to teach is to fall out of love with teaching. Or maybe you think teachers are all masochists—those who do teach end up jaded with the world because that tendency is already an overripe characteristic in their psyche?

No. None of that is true. Maybe for a few. But not for me.

I just want a cop to help me, no, to take for me like those vests made of assault-proof fabric the bullet—looks, the whining, the passive aggression of disgruntled and manipulative students. The look that says I’m sorry for being late but 1) my alarm didn’t go off, 2) my bus was late, 3) I couldn’t find a parking place, 4) the computer screwed my paper up, 5) I didn’t think we had class today and 6) the lunch line in the cafeteria was so long and I was so hungry and really, Mr. Larson, I’m so sorry, it will never happen again, you can count on my word because I do not and never will lie, and you can stake your life on that fact.

I want a cop who stands outside the door in leather chaps, a shirt with epaulets and medals, a motorcycle helmet, mirror sunglasses and a semi-automatic weapon at his side, who whenever he moves all of his body upholstery creaks with readiness like some samurai warrior, and says to the febrile student and her pathetic excuse, Yeah, right, try even opening your mouth because I don’t ever care why you’re late . . .

Or maybe that’s a little extreme, I’ve been collecting too much anger and really I am a sympathetic sort who never has these Nazi teacher-fantasies, really, class, you can stake your life on it. I guess I want a cop who laughs it off, who has a sense of humor because he/she has seen everything, who when the student says you can’t drop me for five absences and four latenesses, says in reply, Oh yes I can. Ha, ha.

Or maybe I want a cop who can nicely intone the kindly parent’s voice who must always repeat, Don’t forget to you bring your book to class? Remember, when we are discussing an article in your textbook you need to bring the book, your textbook, that the article is in. So we can discuss it. Or maybe I want to be a Mr. Rogers’ cop. You forgot your book? Oh, I’m sorry for having assigned that two-page article to read. That meant not only did you have to read the article but you had to write a note to yourself to remember to bring the book to class, too. And, oh my, that’s a lot to remember for a little guy, I mean a little girl. Two things to remember is hard—I can well imagine. I bet you’ll do better next time because next time I won’t assign anything to read in the book but just remind you to bring the book to class and then I’ll read it aloud in class and you won’t have to have two things to remember. You won’t have any homework. That would make it whole lot easier, wouldn’t it. Good. I’m happy now. Are you?


His paper sat on my desk; we had just finished discussing it. It being his C-minus and the reasons why. No it wasn’t very interesting, I had to admit. He knew that. No it didn’t seem to have much work put into it, either. He knew that, too. What would he get in the course? Probably a "C." Good enough, he said. I asked him what he was going to do with his life now that his two years at community college were almost finished. "Find some damn job," he said.

Man, I said to him, hoping to inspire a little more than the Lyle and Erik Menendez approach to personal responsibility, some day you might get lucky and end up with a job as good as mine—teaching writing. Oh yeah? Yeah, man, I’m not lying. It’s almost too embarrassing to list the reasons why. They pay me all this money to come in a few hours a day; we get to work with terrifically talented students—present company excluded, he interrupted; we get an office, a phone, a union contract, a paid sabbatical every six years; we have no boss over our heads who’s checking to see if we’re prepared, on time, in our office when we say we are; we have nothing like what my father the paper salesman had with a time clock and a new brochure to produce every year and clients in Dubuque and Fargo to hustle about the company’s new line of colored pencils . . . man, teaching college, I said gloating, is one of the best jobs you could ever have.

My C- student thought for a moment and replied, "You may think this is a good job, Mr. Larson, but you still got to read all those shitty papers."


Overheard from a student leaving a final exam with another student, either celebrating or cursing the end of the semester: "Man, a good teacher makes all the difference in the world."

So too (I think) does a good student.


Great Teacher Number Two:

The dissenter.

John Taylor Gatto, author of Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling and the winner on three occasions of the New York City Teacher of the Year award, is perhaps the greatest education-dissenter-cum-teacher America has produced. He can grasp and grouch the problems our educational system wallows in like no one else I’ve ever read. Here is a juicy portion of his contrarian wisdom taken from his article published in The Sun a few years ago called, "Bitter Lessons: What’s Wrong With American Teachers."

"If our present, weary school-reform hysteria is not to end where all the others have ended—in more of the same—we must bell the cat of school restructuring: alterations in time, place, and text are not enough. We won’t get different schools from the same old teachers any more than we’ll get a different piece of cake from the same old recipe. Schoolteachers will corrupt new structures just by being themselves. And whatever is wrong with teachers, it’s clear that colleges and teacher certification procedures have been unable to fix it. We need to accept that there exists no scientific formula by which a good teacher can be ‘trained’ as though he or she were a circus dog. We need to reinvent the teacher. We need the teachers we never had."

His solution is a mix of home schooling, revolution and the power of master artists—people who teach themselves in the classroom to the exclusion of any curriculum. "This is why," he writes, "great parents are the greatest teachers of all. Parents don’t communicate with their offspring through drills, blackboard notes, or worksheets, but through dynamic illustrations of who they are and what is important to them."

Gatto has a simple cure. "It’s time to discard the people who hold the business of schooling tight against their chests, time to discount the advice of those who make a good living out of the current system . . . . Only those dedicated to the struggle for personal, not collective, sovereignty can realistically begin to talk about a different kind of schoolteacher, one who can deliver to children a statement of his or her own aggressive independence. Without that, school reform is a waste of time."


When I was young I didn’t choose to be a student. They sent me to school. But I would have chosen to be a student, especially in kindergarten and grade school. Not so much in junior or senior high. Somewhat in college but only when I watched the great literature teachers at the University of Missouri practice their love of novels and stories and poems and essays. So, when I was older, I chose my profession—a teacher. But now I wish, after close to fifteen years of teaching, that I had not become what I am. Instead, I wish I were still a student, studying literature. Forever learning, never espousing.


Honors English 265: Autobiography

Evaluation: Cassandra Heard

Sorry this has taken so long to get to you. My Multicultural literature class has been a bear to get started this semester.

In reading through your portfolio I find very little that is new. Three pieces heard in class, plus the last story called "Boycott." I’m unsure if/how this story is autobiographical. I like parts of it. The dialogue seems sure and the characters interact in ways that are pushing toward confrontation. But it seems that just when something gets going, some intensity is found between the people, the scene moves or shifts, leaving too much between them unsaid, uninvolved. (The story sounds like fiction.) If you are saying that Andrea is perplexed with her mother’s penchant for stealing by not enjoying it, I think that would be obvious for a teenage girl. What happens because of it? The story seems to show us that she is unhappy about it and that’s that. That’s what? If she is trapped, how is she trapped? If she is really unhappy, how does her unhappiness reveal itself to her or to her mother. How could you show us this with more intensity? Confrontation at Sears?

I guess my problem with the story is that too little happens—only the slightest bit of awareness is broached. "Andrea felt shame whenever she played a record." I think there was not much shame shown or felt in the story. Discomfort yes; shame no. In revising it I would try to make something happen that has to do not so much with perpetuating Rita’s wrong but forcing the issue between mother and daughter.

The thing I wanted to talk with you about last semester had to do with your story called "Larissa." I was very disturbed the night you brought the story to class. Not only did you bring a story that you wrote for English 205, but you brought it in pretty much the same condition it was in then. (Not to mention that it remains in similar condition now.) I was offended by this. First that you pawned off on the class a story that you did not write during our semester and second that you didn’t even ask me about it. I guess you assumed I wouldn’t mind? I would have rather heard that you had no time to prepare the assignment or that you would drop the class or audit or do something other than what you did do—recycle your own work. I hope you understand why I feel it was a deceptive thing to do.

As to the rest of the portfolio—again, I find very little revised, very little effort in regard to the outside assignments. I was also amazed that you never contacted me with a note or a call to let me know what was happening. I certainly would have understood and perhaps have been able to help. I don’t know. To have someone fade away and never say a thing until the night of the party? I’ll stop.

I thought the "C" I gave you was generous, mostly because I’m not into punishing people with grades. I just wanted, in this letter, to let you know that I was offended by your action and your non-action in our class. Period. Amen.


Cassandra’s return letter:

Dear Thomas Larson,

. . . My reasons for taking this last class had very little to do with writing, but with my admiration of the classroom dynamics which you had used daily in the other class I had taken. As I stated in class on two occasions (once when you asked why we were there & once when the guest speaker asked if we considered ourselves writers). I was there as someone wanting to immerse myself in your teaching style. Writing itself was secondary. Of course, due to the difference of hour, type of student & course content, your style was different. It was appropriate for the class. I will be teaching high school so your old style was what I was hoping to see again since it seemed appropriate to inner city high school students . . . .

If you sensed deceit, it was most certainly due to the underlying guilt I felt from not having very clearly stated my reasons for being in the class in the first place. I rationalized by telling myself that my reasons should be of no consequence & besides, by the first class meeting, I had told you what had prompted my enrollment. Your teaching.

As for your feeling that my turning in old writing was an act of deceit, I am completely aghast. Many people brought in old work. Openly. I was never under the impression that that was taboo. If you felt that way why didn’t you ever mention it? You had ample opportunity on the way to the cars after class.

Right before the semester’s withdrawal deadline, school was becoming a real hell for me. I talked to you extensively about it; albeit not as a student coming to a teacher with a specific problem to be worked out, but in the course of walking to our cars. I told you that I was sick inside that school had for me been reduced to a meaningless race where the only thing that mattered was "getting over." I used to love school, but the tension of getting through this last semester before transfer & having to deal with a (GE requirement to UCSD) Zoology class taught by a megalomaniacal instructor was getting to me. As I told you then, I had to pass that class or screw up all of the delicate transfer arrangements to UCSD. (As a matter of principle that Zoology teacher had never allowed a grade of A to be attained by anyone.) In short, and as I had almost tearfully told you, life had been reduced to a "how can I get over it" manipulation.

I had told you that the amount of energy I had left for your class was almost zero, (not to mention energy for my children). And we had then gotten on the subject of grades. Not in terms of the grade you were planning to give me specifically, but where you voiced your general attitude toward them. You said you could care less about them & I said good because I was going to be very limited in my participation of your class. You said that another student had approached you & said she was unwilling to put any effort into the Autobiography Bibliography & that seemed agreeable to you. People had ceased coming to class & you still awaited their return. Without rancor.

From all of this I had a half-assed gleaning that you would simply give whatever grade someone wanted (since you considered them meaningless anyway) & that you understood that I would be unable to participate fully.

The thing I feel most foolish about it my reason for not simply withdrawing at that point. Guilt. I felt that I had taken up space in the class & that I owed you my completed enrollment (on paper) so that your new Honors class would look successful (on paper), and you’d be able to do it again next semester. (I also had really grown to care for the group.) This protectiveness was particularly heightened by the fact that you’d recently been promoted to full-time & I figured they’d be scrutinizing you especially close.

At the time it never struck me just how all of my actions might seem pompous.

I now have the first "C" grade in my life. From my initial perspective this seemed an act of anger on your part, but after a little thought I realized just how cavalier & insensitive I must have seemed. I’m afraid that’s a stance I sometimes take when I see no way out. I had three notebooks (loose leaf) filled with parasitic flatworm notes and virtually no rewrites for your class. This is what school had become for me. I meant you no disrespect. I respect you a great deal, appreciate greatly your letter to me & the lessons I learned especially about my own sort of self-defeating vagueness. I was very ashamed that I wasn’t fulfilling my part of the deal: to write & rewrite I was also very aware why: because I was giving priority to a maniac (Zoology teacher) who I felt had control of my future & putting no effort into your class because I felt you’d let me do that. At the time I felt bad, but only later did I realize just how flippant & arrogant that must have seemed.

I am very sorry to have ever come across that way. I am in the habit of fulfilling the responsibilities I choose to take on, but I had gotten cocky & took on much more than I could & disregarded the writing when things got tight.

Please accept my apologies, heartfelt. Speaking of which, enclosed please find Christ-manifesting-on-a-refrigerator magnet. I forgot to bring him to your house. It is a creepy painting, but maybe he’s just having a hard time communicating. The heart part I like. It shines regardless of thorns. It’s his face, the lifelessness that scares me. There’s no spark.

For your spark, thank you.



Bob, my Allstate insurance agent, is figuring the costs for my son’s auto insurance on the computer and talking to us simultaneously. He says his brother and he fought like the Dickens when young but once they moved out of home, they became fast friends. "He calls me twice a week," Bob says. "He’s like me," he goes on, laughing and whispering because she is in the next room, "we’re both on another wife." Bob says that this is number three for him and his brother’s on number four. "I have a thirty-year-old, two daughters in their mid-twenties and a step-son at nineteen who’s going to Point Loma Nazarene. So I’m fifty-three right now and I figure I’m out of here in—" he holds up the requisite number of fingers—"seven."

Bob looks kindly at Jeremy and says, "If you’d told me when I was your age," Jeremy is nineteen, "that I’d be an insurance agent when I got older I woulda laughed in your face." Jeremy laughs, sort of in Bob’s face.

"Tom, what is it you said you did?"

I tell him I’m a college professor.

"Oh yeah. You’re off now, right?" It’s mid-June and yes, I think, you damn right I’m off. "Yeah, everybody ought to have what we teachers got."

"Amen," Bob says.

It’s time for the old joke I’ve told more times than I care to count. "You know, Bob," I say, "teaching is a complex and individual profession but you can boil it all down to three basic reasons why we teach."

"What is that?" he says.

"June, July and August."

"Honey come in here," Bob calls to the next room where is wife is at the computer. The clock on the wall is fast, the air-conditioner is on high and the slanted blinds on the back window are barely open to the foggy San Diego morning. Honey arrives and Bob says, "You remember Tom Larson and his son Jeremy. Tom says there’s three reasons, June, July, and August, why he teaches so he’s getting ready to go away for the rest of the summer. Don’t you wish I would take off a little time and go somewhere."

It’s not so much a question as it is the answer to a question that neither of them dare to ask. Not until Bob’s sixty. Honey smiles at me, and I catch Jeremy’s bored expression in the corner of my eye. I know what he’s thinking. When I grow up I ain’t a-gonna be a insurance man or a goddamn teacher. Anything but that!


An in-class timed directed free write (six minutes). Topic: writing is _______________. I write with my students. Always.

Writing is not hell, writing is blood, it is the visible evidence of my mind, my emotional life, running all over the page yet controlled with the arteries of grammar or the heart-pumping imagination. As blood, the metaphor doesn’t work all the way—words break up the patterns, the liquid nature; grammatical units come out like corpuscles or cells; style is blood type, on and on it goes. I find now I’m not happy with blood as a metaphor for writing for all it does is express that writing has flow and substance. So what. This doesn’t get at the is-ness of me writing, why I do it and most importantly how I feel while I’m doing it or because I write, the afterglow. My blood boils in my pen at times; at other times my blood thins out to a near invisible clarity, anemic yet pure. The writing can feel hopelessly leaden like the blood of death or heavenly light like the blood of poetry. Thin it enough and it becomes as transparent as air. Sweet Jesus, here I am back to the blood analogy. There’s no deciding one or the other, writing is earthen, bloody, Christ-like, victim.


I once taught Lorraine Hansberry’s "A Raisin in the Sun" to a class of white students with one African American woman. One day we were discussing the character of George Murchinson, the upper-class beau of Beneatha’s who seems to signify the assimilationism into white society that many blacks abhor. To move up you gotta be like them—how awful!

As a way of helping them understand George’s larger significance in the play, I said this character represents full assimilation into the white world. George goes all the way.

Tina Kimmons, my one black student, looked at me and smirked—as if to say you got to be kidding, white man.

I wanted to crawl into a hole. Here I’d been exposed by one of the only black students at this University as some race-conscious charlatan. I felt suddenly self-conscious, insensitive to what some blacks may not feel is assimilation at all but doing their best economically as Americans. I was making a big deal out of George’s difference with my interpretation, George wasn’t. And I thought I knew something about African American literature which, as cultural process in the work of Richard Wright, was part of my thesis.

The class continued the discussion when I was saved by the even greater ignorance of Victoria, a loquacious, opinionated student who kept commenting on Walter, a man who couldn’t hold a job, a real contrast to George. Victoria said that Walter was not pulling himself up and out of poverty, that he should be more thankful for what he has and the sacrifices his female-dominated household had made for him. Such blaming of the victim was common at this school.

I didn’t challenge Victoria; I hoped another student would. I let her go on and they may have thought (at least those who thought about my method) that I was trying to let her be her own worst enemy. But in reality I was trying not to be seen as the uninformed and prejudicial instructor, glad to have someone more ignorant than I in the spotlight.

When class was over, Tina got me after class to ask a question about a future assignment. She volunteered that it was good that I let Victoria go on and on, talk herself into a corner. She said that maybe some of the other students, who did not speak up, will in days ahead, because they realize that Vicky didn’t understand what she was saying. In fact, Tina said, others might speak up because they didn’t want to appear as shallow and ignorant as Victoria—especially if that’s meaningful to me, the instructor. After all, Vicky’s ideas are not based on anything firm; her prejudice against Walter echoes a voice heard at home, an unquestioned one around the dinner table. Tina herself can’t contradict her; that would be too obvious. No, that must come from her own kind. Vicky herself may have gone home and, intelligent girl that she is, said, Do I actually believe what I said? Maybe some of the others are saying right now, Do I actually believe what I heard?

I asked Tina then about her own experience with racial prejudice and she told me, at least, the quick half-hour version—stories about her pediatrician husband, the divisions in Chicago, her home, the difficulty they had buying a home in San Diego. How many of the reactions to her had I heard of? Nearly all. Tina said you can either laugh or cry. She chose to laugh.

When she left I wondered for a long time if she was protecting me, too, as she did Vicky, from our own ignorance, trying to educate me by example, and not by the literature which I thought was the real source of our education, both prejudicial and enlightening. She seemed to be saying that the truth evident in Hansberry’s play was only partial. To see real black people, you had to know that despite their experience they didn’t represent anything other than themselves.


When she comes into my office, I invite her to sit down. She does so quickly—and closely to me. She puts her paper on the desk.

"I’m unclear," she says, "why you wanted to see me. Is it about this essay?"

"Yes, your essay." I pick up her paper, and I think that this is partly about your writing and partly about what I want to express to you. Which can only be said. Which no marginal comment can fully reveal.

"This piece you’ve written is incredible," I say, "a really wonderful, heart-felt yet disturbing story about your Grandmother and you. It’s all very concrete—full of action and feeling but not overly descriptive of the feeling." The psychology of her method is what I am after, what I am often after in the emotionally alive work of a talented writer. "How did you write this piece?"

"I just sat down and wrote it. I put myself there and it all came back to me."

"Would you mind reading it to me first before we talk about it?"

As she begins, I wonder if she sees me as an academic voyeur, wanting her to show off her work. To what end? She may think I’ll be critical or nosy or amateurishly psychoanalytic, when the truth is I want to feel her gift for storytelling by listening to her read aloud, literature alive.

Together we sit in the white-walled room while she reads her love-hate story about being stuck, as the lone young female in the family, with Grandma. There’s a good six exciting pages of face-to-face struggle between them. When she finishes, I wait. The silence gets a little pregnant and is broken only by a laugh on her part that says she knows it was good because I’ve listened to it so intently.

"I like that story very much," I say. "Do you?"

"Yeah, I do. But it could’ve been more."

I ask how.

"Too many of the images just sit there. They don’t move."

"You mean those crochet hooks you wanted to strangle her with?"

She laughs.

"I like that a lot," I say. "You return to them, again and again. Where should they move to?"

"Well, no, I don’t mean move around the room."

"Maybe," I say, "you could be carrying them for Grandma, drop them. Or maybe she could ask you go get them. Make the hooks even more present. That would add more tension. But the great thing about them is the word strangle. How does one strangle another with crochet hooks? You’re sort of flipping the literary device on its head. We think you mean to stab but you persist in wanting to strangle. Like you’re unaware of just how deviant the idea is. That’s really nice."

"I did want to kill her, Mr. Larson."

"You did?"

"I still do. It was like she ruined what I thought about myself as a girl and as a woman. That I was stuck with her all the time. Which they thought meant I would grow up to be like her. They all made me feel like I was less than the boys because I had to do all that motherly shit for Grandma."

"I understand all that," I say nervously. "It’s in the writing and I’m not asking you to explain it."

"It is and it isn’t," she says. "I see that what I’ve done is to complicate it all even more and if I really want to be honest with myself I should go back and revise it so that I really do try and kill her. That would be the most truthful story I could tell." There’s a sudden surprising delight in her face which says, I didn’t know I was so sure of what I felt.

As a teacher, what do you say to such insight as vindictive and certain as this? Do you say, no, you mustn’t go that far and alter what is now such a perfect story? On the other hand, do you really want to keep what she’s done just the way it is and let her miss her own self-disclosed opportunity? That’s like saying don’t you dare touch this perfect little person you’ve shown yourself to be by writing out your disturbed side which may produce something the teacher or the writer may not want to hear? What do you say, you students who want to teach, who feel the life of the teacher can never have quite the same intensity as the decisions you’re forced to make with your own children or your own parents? You can do what most of us do. You can give it back, thank her for reading and ask her if she has any other questions and then walk her to the door. Or you can give in, as I did just this once, and say, "You may not like what I’m about to propose and it’s OK to disregard it, but I’m wondering if you are able right now to imagine what it would have felt like in the moment just before you did start to strangle her with those crochet hooks?"


Elizabeth King read her paper to the class, a story about her giving birth to her daughter when she was sixteen. I don’t remember how it happened: Did she want to? Did I ask her? Did another student prod her because he or she knew how powerful it was? The story was not about the birth of the child but the fact that her mother snubbed her when she discovered Elizabeth was pregnant. The mother clammed up and refused to say a word to her, the worst punishment of all. Reading it to the class, Elizabeth broke down and cried five times. Beside her sat a friend who on the first breakdown began rubbing her back. He looked at me and circled his finger in the air, indicating that she could continue. The second time I looked at him, he was nodding and winking at me that she could do it. Each successive breakdown made the class even more quieter, tomblike, and I wanted to stop it. But her friend kept rubbing her back and saying, "C’mon, honey, you can do it." The hardest part to hear—to bear—was when Elizabeth described herself in bed the night her water broke. She knew what this meant, but she was frightened when it happened. No sister or husband or father were there to soothe her. So, once again, she called out to her mother who had not spoken to her for six months and who allowed her to stay in the house until the birth day came. Elizabeth called to the adjacent room where she’d heard her mother go to bed only an hour before: "Mom, Mommie, please help me. Mom, Mommie, please." Her mother got out of bed and shut her own door. Elizabeth wadded a sheet between her legs and called a taxi which took her to the hospital. The baby was born and Elizabeth moved out of her mother’s home. It was a happy ending if you can call it that, but it was also heartbreaking. When her reading was over, no one said a thing. I asked the class to free write a letter to Elizabeth right then, telling her what you thought of her story. Later Elizabeth told me that there were twenty-eight letters of support, many of which said that they too knew from experience just how devastating was the cruelty of those who professed to love us the most.


Very carefully and with no hint of malice I pick up the notebook which you dropped in front of me, which almost touched my feet, once I reminded you that neither would I accept the journal two weeks late nor would I have the time even to look at it, though you said that for me to flip through the pages in two seconds would prove that you did in fact do the writing and you did in fact learn something in the course and, besides, you did not intend to have your life get in the way and screw up this badly not only in my course but all the other ones too, the History and the Math and the Humanities whose instructor said that life is for learning, mistakes happen, we have to grow, and here is your folder back because I try never to pick up anything that isn’t mine.


Note stuffed under my door, presumably someone in search of a ghost writer or the caring direction of a teacher:

Please give Kay Liz Johnson 297-1172 a call. This is going to be a book that consists of Love, Mystery, War and Near Death experiences.

It will begin with World War 2. Then, the Korean Conflict & Vietnam Conflict.

A woman that was married 14 years to a Editor, a man from Anderson, North Dakota, Bank Manager from Chase Manhattan Bank. A criminal, spouse abuse, a woman that had a stroke, a woman in a coma, a woman attending this college.

No, I didn’t call her.


Great Teacher or Teachers Number Three.

The parents.

As John Taylor Gatto reminds us, parents make incredible teachers, not by assignment but by example. My mother’s struggle with lung cancer and her desperate fight to remain home so she could die with her control—and this from a woman who seemed to me to always be deferential to others—taught me lessons about the dignity of dying which are unavailable in school. And yet, who’s to say they might not be part of our curriculum? Consider the instructional power of elders in the community who come in to share their dying or their lives with students. The paradox of my father’s life, caught between his duty to raise three sons, nine years apart in age, and his eventual dissatisfaction with the excesses of advertising, his chosen profession, showed me what men in America endure as their responsibility, far removed from what is required in the classroom. Why don’t our fathers come to our colleges or high schools and talk with us about their lives, failures and triumphs. The family elders as teachers of personal psychology and of generational and cultural history are the true Mr. Hollands. They have an enormous amount to share and yet are dismissed once they are "retired." I have always wanted to teach a course called, "Assembling Our Heritage," which would be composed of art, music, writing, literature, genealogy, etc., whatever expressive modes the students found relevant to include. Imagine a class in the psychology of the family in which the participants would forego the study of some desiccated textbook and its categories of life stages in favor of bringing in or using expressively their own families to assemble the content of the course. I know it sounds dangerous, barely legal, perhaps lawsuit naïve. But that’s the point.


Notes stuffed under my door, notes sealed in an envelope and left in my box.

Mr. Larson:

I have to leave. I wanted to tell you in person but you are busy and I didn’t want to interrupt. The reason I wanted to see you is because I need help. I’m not too sure about my topic anymore, ‘Ebola virus,’ but I guess it would be too late change it. To be completely honest with you, I haven’t even started. So many things are going on right now, I can’t seem to focus or concentrate.

I hate coming to class empty handed. I feel so embarrassed because it seems everyone else has their stuff together except me. Every time I want to do well in something, my life starts to get complicated. I hate my life right now, and the only thing that makes me happy and keeps me going is school. I’m failing at that also.

This is why I need your help. I need some understanding, and I know you can give that to me. Right now I need to get out of here and head to the library. I need to get my act together and put my problems aside. "After the struggle comes victory." I heard this and it made me feel I can do anything. (Please call me after 5 p.m. 428-8011)



Professor Larson,

Fuck You! I will not employ your eurocentric view to correct or revise my paper.


(I knew who, though)


Mr. Larson,

I do interrupt. I am not the teacher. Still, I do have questions, comments, and interjections. Tell me to shut up. Bill



I cannot meet with you today. After the class, I feel quite depressed. The classroom is not a "safe" place for my feelings.



We go into teaching not so much because we want to help others learn but because by teaching our subjects we ourselves learn much more about literature or math or humanities than we did when we were students, trying and failing to learn those subjects well. Frustration with our so-so performance in college is at the root of a teacher’s motivation; indeed, if you want to be a successful teacher, the last thing you want to have been is a successful student.


Jeffrey Wigand, the Brown and Williamson research executive who blew the whistle on the tobacco industry, that the industry knew about the addictive power of nicotine and then lied about it to Congress, was asked after the Great Settlement between the U.S. Attorneys General and the tobacco companies, if he would leave his job as an instructor of biology, chemistry, physics and Japanese at a Louisville, Kentucky, high school, said no he would not because "I make a difference every day as a teacher."


November 5, 1986

Class Visitation:

. . . I visited Tom Larson’ English 21 (Composition and Literature) class. Because of my own schedule, I arranged to visit briefly on two occasions, rather than just one.

On October 14, Tom was in the early stages of working with the class on Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham. The students had been assigned only the first part of the novel, and class discussion focussed on matters of plot and character. The format was open, Tom inviting the students to ask him questions about things that had been confusing to them. My presence may well have subdued the students’ readiness to talk, but, even taking that into account, it seemed to me that the students were unusually reticent. Tom had to work to get them to ask questions. Discussion did begin finally, but even then, I was bothered in a couple instances by the casualness of Tom’s response. In one case a student asked him a question about some of the characters that he couldn’t answer precisely, attributing it to the "vagueness" of novels of that era. My feeling was that, since Tom had invited questions about specific details, he should have been more ready with specific answers.

The second time I visited, on October 30, Tom was talking about writing. He had reproduced paragraphs from three student papers. I stayed for about half an hour, during which time he discussed the first of these examples. Once again, the students were very slow to begin talking. Finally, to get things started, Tom asked them to identify the paragraph’s topic sentence, which they were able to do, but which did not have the effect of sparking any more detailed discussion. He then asked them to go through the paragraph identifying the subject of each sentence as a way of getting a better sense of what the paragraph was about. The students did this but still were not able to move onto any more substantial observations or questions. Discussion improved when Tom asked them to distinguish between sentence that were essentially plot summary and those that were interpretive or analytical. This started the students thinking in less superficial terms, but I was bothered that Tom didn’t develop these distinctions sufficiently for the students to have a sense of how and when plot summary and/or interpretation was appropriate in the kind of paper in question. One student was persistent in asking whether Tom felt that a particular sentence was appropriate or not. Tom seemed to be saying that the sentence was out of place in the paragraph and that it contained more "thought" than the rest of the paragraph, but I could see that the student was confused. Tom did not elaborate this point sufficiently, and the student clearly felt that she was getting mixed signals.

Perhaps after I left Tom used the second and third sample paragraphs to clarify issues that had come up regarding the first sample, but, at least during my visit, I did not feel that the students were getting sufficient direction—or being asked the right questions—as they tried to respond to the writing they’d been given.

Erin Branch

Associate Dean


"What are we supposed to be learning in this course, Mr. Larson?"

What I am trying to teach you is whatever I am learning about myself while I am teaching you whatever it is we’re studying, either writing or literature or essays. What you are learning I have no idea. You have to decide that for yourself. So that’s the good news: I’m clear about what I’m teaching you. Good, there’s no questions.


I say, interrupting her, that I’ll get to that in just a minute. She says no, I want an answer now. I want to know why you felt the character’s life depended on opening the car door to the hitchhiker. That, I say, would take some explaining. Isn’t that what we’re here for? she says. To take some explaining? This comment seems to get several of the others worked up, take notice, lean over to her side. You may have a point, I say, which is my way of getting my way, evading her, to which she says, I’m still waiting. Well, so am I, I think; I’m waiting too. I’m waiting, she persists, for your reason. Just why does someone’s life depend on whether they open a car door or not? That, pardon me, seems to me to be an arrogant assumption. Nothing in life can boil down to the haste with which we change our minds in the moment. If it did we all would have been finished, our gooses cooked, long ago, and she looks around to see how many are in agreement with her. Some are; maybe more than I can know. The point is, I say after a moment of reflection, knowing that this bastard will recognize her with or without the door being freely opened changes nothing. Everything we believe, everything that matters to us personally, everything that we remember and trust about ourselves or others, depends only in the minutest degree on the outcome of the action and almost entirely on the impulse which sets the action in motion. Your remark for me to explain myself proves it. Here I’ve explained myself because you had the chutzpa to not let me get out of explaining myself. It doesn’t really matter what I’ve explained. What you’ll remember is how you got me to talk when I didn’t want to. That’s what I mean. Maybe, she says, unwilling to concede me much of anything except her ongoing question of why do they have to come in for eighteen weeks and listen to me talk.


"On Receiving Tenure"

From my journal:

I was awarded tenure yesterday, and I had a very mixed reaction. Ambivalence was the word, and I shared it with committee—Barbara, John and Kit, the Dean. I said that I was not excited by tenure because it recalled the many awful UCSD profs who were unfireable, awful teachers, worse human beings. Unfireable because of the system of tenure itself. Joining the corporate board with all the other tenured types! An appendage on the body of the giant! Now to learn the fine art of waffling, the blessed unction of self-censorship! Tenure is its own worst enemy like floating in a river of ice with only an oar. Announcing tenure made me queasy; it marked me, gave me a badge of respectability which I didn’t want. Or maybe it made me suddenly disrespectable. Tied me to a bureaucratic system which did not free me with security but rather columned me into the unapproachable professor who hides behind his newfound bars and locks. Don’t disturb him—he’s got tenure; he’s not in—he’s got tenure; he died because he had tenure for too long. It’s a dirty word like fighting Castro has always been a dirty war. And then to apply it to my own condition, oh, bless, curse me. I wanted to scream, Nooooooooooooooo, not me. Can’t I keep my own standards and look out for myself without your system looking out for me? What of my self have I traded in for this JOB? THIS JOB, as if I am now and for evermore my career!


Great Teacher Number Four.

The self.

If teachers to be good should always be themselves and not the role, here’s one unabashedly herself. Her name was Elizabeth Keating and she taught Shakespeare as well as composition at San Diego City College for many years. She was known as the teacher (the battle-ax by most!) who never gave an "A." True, her classes would always whittle down to three or four students, faster than those other teachers who spoke so flatly and reasoned so mundanely that students dropped them out of stupefying boredom. The very few who stayed with Dr. Keating loved her rigor, loved her knowledge, loved the challenge which she issued them: "Go ahead and try to write a perfect student essay. There isn’t such a thing; it’s a contradiction in terms." Was it possible? A grammatically, mechanically and intellectually perfect paper? The very impossibility forced a few to attempt it. Dr. Keating never let up. She could be heard in her office telling her students during conference, you have immaculate attendance and yes, you espouse brilliant commentary on Twelfth Night or Leontes’ schizophrenic psychology in The Winter’s Tale. But what does that have to do with writing a perfect paper? So went the catechism and none, so far as I know, ever got her to eat those words.

Did Dr. Keating come to teaching because she wanted to be compassionate and "there" for her students, using an ounce more of sugar than vinegar? Did Dr. Keating believe that students required humanistic instruction? Not on your life. She believed that she was the teacher—this was her practice not her belief—and they were her students; she believed that they didn’t know Shakespeare and she did, and therefore her class wasn’t about getting a good grade, it was about their learning something they didn’t know for which it was impossible to receive a perfect score. And she believed that if she weren’t present, fangs bared, to teach it to them, then they wouldn’t learn it. That was herself and, as I say, how does one argue, change, reprogram, enlighten, soften, shift the recklessly sure sensibility of the harshest autocrat who ever strode the chalkboard runnels (I’m sure everyone one has had their Dr. Keating to remember)—the answer is, one doesn’t argue with her. One accepts her with the proviso that few students will ever survive her lessons. But for those few, she is Socrates.

And are we to know if Dr. Keating was conflicted over her role as teacher and her personality as piranha? I suspect she was, and I suspect that she adopted the piranha role, which talk in the faculty lounge cartoonishly animated, because she was conflicted by the excesses of her personality. I’m certain she wished many times to be less stern than she was just as innumerable other teachers have wished to be far more rigorous and less favoring than their personalities allow them to be. But despite her intractable nature, Dr. Keating’s formidableness in the classroom taught her students as much about her intensity as it did the artistry of the bard. Which, pound for pound against Shakespeare, is greatness indeed.


The father—I was telling a male student today in my office about my father and how much I missed him both when I was growing up and after he died, how I saw him as missing, in the image of the chair he sat in at night where his head rested against the backside or in the television which only he turned on after dinner. Images of the presence of my father in his absence. The student harbored great animosity for his father; he wants to go through the door of resentment he’s kicked open but he can’t. It is, I told him, the only way to get to the narrative place. The irony is, furthermore, that it doesn’t matter whether you knew him or not. The absent father is just as much a father as the present one or the dozens of other myths—the good, helpful, bellicose, authoritarian father. Indeed the absent father has so much "body" in our culture, so much via abandoned wives and children, that he is a construct of our desire for him. How does that help me write about him? the student asks. Well, you have to write about the man who wasn’t there, the man who didn’t come, the man you always wanted and expected and who let you down. Write about how you filled up the hole in which you missed him.



God do I ever have some ignorant and disrespectful students in English 205! Carlos says after I have read aloud a short excerpt about a daughter’s love for her father that he would, if given the chance, take the daughter home and beat her. He was trying to be funny. Not many laughed. Or how about the two female students who sit in the back and gossip. One, Sandy, talks incessantly, especially while I do; she also laughs at the Vietnamese student whose broken English is very difficult for any of us to get. I blew up at her the other day after class, telling her to keep quiet and that she had frustrated me with her interruptions beyond what is humanly tolerable. She smiled to herself a bit when I used that phrase. The twit, Sandy, had the gall then to blame the other twit who sits next to her: "You didn’t say anything about Elaine." Then, to really stick me, Sandy said, "I’ll never say anything again, in that case." Good! If she wants to sit in aggressive silence for twelve more weeks, then fine. A further gall. She comes back the following class and says, "Will this affect my grade?" I say no, I bear no grudge; I just needed to communicate my anger.

Then there’s the colossal headache Michelle, from Vermont, a wren-faced woman who feigns much weariness of the academic life. She tells me in clouded terms that she is having a really hard time because she has come here from a University (which she no doubt flunked, lost her parents money and now has to start over.) I’m not listening; I just want her to do the assignments. It’s week eight and she has still managed not to buy the book and do very few of the assignments. She buddies up with other bored or disenchanted classmates like her—they must have their antennae up—and, because Michelle is pretty, the others value her complaints. Poor thing. Poor spoiled thing makes me sick. (She finally showed up with an edition of the textbook two editions below the one we have now, so most of the page numbers and assignments are different.) Now she wants to transfer to another class, a lateral move; I guess she wants this because she doesn’t like my style. O.K. fine. Just do it. Sorry to whoever gets her. She’ll show up next Tuesday without the text and then I’ll suspend her until she buys our textbook. She’s not poor; she’s just stupid. She is trying to finish the whole semester without doing anything except the formal papers. The amazing thing is, she thinks she can get away with it.

But in a sense I’m not better than she is because I refuse to confront her. Why? My anger. I fear I’ll be too strong and so many of my students are frail, willowy people who are in the community college because school life has dribbled them senseless elsewhere. So I stay away, quake in imagined response to others, pray they don’t show up, collect more and more, until . . . . And so much of this in the name of the other students who I regard as so deserving of my time and energy.

So I’ll take care of Michelle via administrative suspension, have her sign a behavioral contract. I’ve got to give up this feeling that I am somehow to blame for their bad manners and ineptitude. Who says that just because I’m a responsible teacher means that I have to be or act like I’m responsible for every damn thing that goes on in my class?


Great Teacher Number Five.

The extemporizer.

One thinks of Ivan Illyich, Robert Scholes, Paul Goodman, John Holt, Jane Tompkins or Peter Elbow (who wrote the 1973 classic Writing Without Teachers), the mavericks who reinvent the classroom with their students as co-conspirators. They are the fearless, the non-institutional, the dreamy revolutionaries, the inchoate—those whose lack of classroom technique works to their benefit, who have either radically powerful classes or else produce, in the name of experimentation, abject failures. There’s not much in between. But beware. From this hole in the ice Hollywood likes to do its deepest fishing, ever-ready to sanctify the LouAnne Johnsons and Jaime Escalantes inside America’s chainlink-fenced, metal-detecting junior and senior high schools and to present sanitized versions of these "heroes" in films with lots of tinkly diatonic Windham Hill piano music—and pedagogical moralizing.

My favorite teacher, who’s been called a "constructive anarchist," is James Herndon. Taking his iconoclastic methods into George Washington Junior High in the sixties (a Los Angeles school 98 percent black), Herndon describes in The Way It Spozed To Be (his How To Survive Your Native Land is just as good) the roles everyone believes he must fulfill. Herndon is hired at the last minute and given an array of levels and classes, all in English. On the first day he hears all about student behavior from the vice-principal Miss Bentley who makes her discipline pitch analogous to the Army. "The Army ," she tells them, "was an organization of people given certain tasks to perform. So was a school. The tasks were vital." It is clear, although unmentioned, that the main issue for that school year (as it always seems in the secondary schools), is not primarily one of education but of "classroom control." Herndon thinks, "In order that learning may take place, Miss Bentley was saying, there must first be order." But Herndon isn’t interested in order. And he says why.

My lack of interest wasn’t simply naïve, at least not in the way which springs immediately to mind, that of the imaginary progressive educator who imagines, or has been popularly supposed to imagine, that given a nice, friendly teacher and lots of freedom of action and very little planning, the students will always be good-natured, orderly, interested, motivated, well-behaved and studious, in short, nice themselves. I didn’t doubt there might be noise, disorder, anarchy, chaos and all that in my own classroom; I just didn’t see that this constituted a "problem" any more than a quiet, studious class was a "problem." Perhaps they were both problems, put it that way. But what administrators mean when they say "problem" is something which is not supposed to happen, something which happens all the time of course, or it wouldn’t be a "problem," but which isn’t supposed to happen. A problem, you were supposed to believe in, and work toward, its nonexistence.

Herndon’s supposition is immediately challenged by his 9D class, the worst behaved and most under-prepared of all his sections. One day a young man named Maurice comes in while Herndon is trying to get 9D to focus on writing a composition. Maurice has arrived from "Juvi" where, incarcerated, he has been told that if wants to stay out of the criminal justice system, he must return to class and, without disruption, prove himself worthy of being educated. This is, of course, his last chance. All this info comes from the other students, in the space of five minutes; they’ve seen it all a hundred times before. They tell Herndon how he needs to watch and evaluate Maurice very closely.

I began to talk about how English meant using the language however they wanted; I was well into my speech about figuring out together what was relatively interesting to do and then figuring out how to do it—which was, naturally, crap since I already had the business of composition in mind and how we were going to go about it—and they were just beginning to get bored (they knew it was crap too), seeing as how I wasn’t going to either lecture Maurice about Crime Not Paying or say anything humorous again, when bang! Maurice and another boy, locked in each other’s arms, fell over their desks and across the desks of the next row and lay there stretched out, struggling. Books, papers and kids scattered. Hell!

. . . as I got there Maurice loosed an arm and belted the other kid in the face. Cut it out! I grabbed Maurice. He didn’t come. The kid on the bottom let go, but Maurice didn’t. I tugged him rather gently. He belted the kid again. I got mad, grabbed Maurice under the arms and heaved as hard as I could. Maurice flew backward over the row of desks and landed with a crash on the next row. He landed plenty hard; I imagine it hurt, and also he must have thought it was all up with him, back to Juvi. He was frantic and mad. He jumped up and started for me. I stood there; he stopped and stood there. He glared. Everybody was scared. . . .

We stood there quite a few seconds and then I nodded, turned and walked swiftly back to my desk and sat down. I hoped I was implying a mutual cease-fire among equals. When I turned around toward the class, Maurice had likewise retreated and was sitting at his desk. We carefully didn’t look right at each other, but still in the same general direc- tion, so as not to be accused of avoiding anything either. Maurice had seen the issue—I’d say we saw it exactly alike. We both had something at stake, and he cooperated perfectly. It was like a play, or an improvisation which came off just right. We were winning.

To "control" the class, Herndon’s on-the-spot pedagogy is this: "Write a story about what just happened." Due the next day. Get busy, he shouts, but the tension will not subside. The students complain that this isn’t a real assignment, that they have no pencils, no paper, no idea how to do it! One student pleads with Herndon to do their spellers, something known, something easy. Herndon explodes and yells at her, "You teaching this class or am I?" The next day, no one turns in the homework. "All denied any knowledge of its being assigned," he writes. "I read Maurice’s ‘Composition,’ as it was entitled: A boy took another boy(’s) (notebook) in the class and so the boy jump(ed) him to beat (him) the teacher broke it up. But the teacher didn’t send the boys to the office." The corrections are Herndon’s.

What do I like about this incident? What is its educational value? Herndon’s honesty, for one. Not only does he know that his motives may be crap and as such are invisible to a class of underachievers but also that by not telling on Maurice he sees in the moment how important "improvisation" is to teaching. To be improvisationally gifted is not the point. To have the insight that such "problems" of human behavior are the very lifeblood of education—the confusion, the complaining, the whining, the failure, the place for failure—signifies for me the most crucial human-centered classroom experience. Herndon’s ability to allow, at least in Herndon’s mind, Maurice’s influence on the class, such as it is, to be muscle-for-muscle equal to Herndon’s influence is also a remarkable trait of a good teacher. The good teacher is the one who is forever teaching the class that teaching must be reciprocal. That is why I like Herndon’s approach. True, all this may be dated from a sort of sixties’ experiential truth, recalling R.D. Laing’s commitment to providing a place in our institutions for the voices and behaviors of those who do not fit in with the norm. I am, nevertheless, convinced that the back-to-basics movement, and I myself teach the basics every day, will never succeed unless there is adequate, conscious room for the messy psychology of student-teacher expectation.

Or, as Herndon put it much more directly, "We [have] to face the fact that all the stuff we thought the kids were dying to do was in fact stuff that we wanted them to do, that we invented, that interested us." What "we wanted them to do" is what students have always felt they came to a classroom in order to learn.


Professor Larson,

I was wondering if you would be able to answer me a question or two that has been troubling me for some time. After being in your class I have begun to look at things (such as literature) much differently than before. In the process I have also begun to look at writers differently as well. It seems kind of weird that we are graded on our works of literature, namely, our papers that we turn into you. Perhaps I am being foolish, but I honestly feel that everything that I turn into you is my best work, and therefore an "A" paper. I know that some people are born writers and are able to express themselves easily. But when one writes a paper, novel, or poem, they write it for themselves. They are the ones who grade the paper and are the hardest graders. If you try to correct what they are doing then their literature is no longer theirs but someone else’s. Perhaps I am wrong and my ideas are not in synch with society, but I would like to know what you think. The reason I am telling you all of this is because I am on scholarship and need a "B" in your class. I’m not asking you to give it to me, but I would like you to think about the arbitrary grading system we have at our school. Grades no longer reflect the knowledge that we have obtained, and a class such as Comp and Lit is probably one of the hardest classes to grade. I really would like to know what you think and stay in touch (forget the grade). Hope you have a great life and enjoy each day as though it were your last!

Your friend,

Jeff Cope

Drop me a line

6249 N 78th St. #33

Scottsdale, AZ 85253


The teacher had given them a prompt, not a test, just an in-class writing assignment. "Describe a time when you were lost." They wrote for twenty minutes and then were put into small groups to share. After another twenty minutes the teacher asked for volunteer readers. In group the students were gesturing at a shy Somalian woman who they were saying had a great tale to tell. She was, they said, too shy to read it herself but another student did.

Several years ago she and her family were fleeing Somalia by camel for Ethiopia. One night, the young woman, then about sixteen, fell asleep while the camel she was riding wandered away from the caravan and into the desert. The woman awoke the next day, lost and yet the camel kept moving toward what she thought was some community, another caravan or an oasis. After two days wandering, dehydrated and fearful, she was picked up by a nomadic tribe who, without an interpreter, took her across the Sudan and placed her on a barge on the Nile, bound for Cairo, Egypt. At an aid agency, she told them who she was and where she came from but because the political situation in Somalia and Ethiopia were so unstable, the aid workers neither could send her home nor send her to a refugee camp. Was there somewhere else she could go? Where there was family? Yes, she said, in America, in New York City, she had a cousin. Next thing she knew, she was on a plane for New York with clothing and enough money to last a week. In New York, she discovered that her cousin had moved west and so the woman now boarded a Greyhound bus for San Diego. She arrived, found her relative and a small Somalian community and began working. A quick learner, she mastered English and was now enrolled in a first-year composition class, sitting among students from Laos, Mexico, Eritrea, the Czech Republic, as well as Stockton, San Clemente, Portland, Oregon, and Ottumwa, Iowa.

"When was the last time you saw your parents?" the teacher asked.

"I have not seen them," the woman said, "since my camel took me out of Somalia and sniffed a breeze that would take me to America. And here, to City College."