Excerpt from “Teaching Narrative: Correspondence School and Waterford Crystal,” Change: The Magazine of Higher Education XXXI.1 (January/February 1999): 32-37.
As a teacher—and like every other teacher—I stand at the intersection of many more vectors, variables, forces, emotions, ideals, aspirations, and accidents than I can even track, much less control. The moment of space and time I stand in now is only the forward crest of a wave that has been gradually shaped by a great many particular drops of experience, whose formative effects I was not vividly aware of at the time they happened.
Once I start thinking about it, however, I realize how different I am from the greener-than-grass, 27-year-old University of Chicago graduate student who, without five seconds' worth of teaching experience, suddenly found himself standing at 8 a.m. in front of a class of freshman writing students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee—students who expected me to know something not only about reading and writing but about how to teach reading and writing.
It was a terrifying moment. Without even knowing how, I remember opening my mouth and beginning that mysterious projection of self, that ever-incomplete exploration of ideas, and that always uncertain social invitation to students—all very big-ticket items—that we somehow squeeze behind this small but significant word: "teaching."
As I look back on my teaching career, I am struck less by what I have (perhaps, perhaps not) learned about teaching problems or teaching principles than by the memory of student faces and student stories. My mind's eye brings to me students' faces like shadows from the dark; my mind's ear brings to me students' stories like voices from another world. I do not possess complete stories for all the students I have known. Constraints of time, inclination, and reticence have often blocked the stories, and with regard to some students, I possess only tantalizing but often sad and sometimes terrifying fragments.
One of the faces belongs to a young woman (my wife's student, really, whom I got to know), the daughter of Russian immigrants, who wrote poetry of such raw emotional intensity and pain that reading it was like having acid thrown in your eyes. Another is that of a sweet and naive young woman who wanted to talk over her decision to concede to her boyfriend's importunities for a sexual relationship. I still receive an annual Christmas letter from her and she is still married to the original "boy friend."
Another face is that of a young woman who wept through my dramatic account of the murder in Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit because, as she told me later, her brother had murdered their mother and father. (In my stunned surprise and shock, all I could think of at first was how Charles Lamb's sister had done the same thing to their mother.)
Another face belongs to a young man who needed a B in my freshman composition class in order to maintain the draft deferment that was keeping him out of the Vietnam War. Another belongs to an older student, a man close to my own age, who took one literature course from me, dropped his history major, switched to English, and today is a professional colleague. Another belongs to a young man whose name was the first I ever called out while taking attendance from a computer roster, who escaped from an unhappy home by coming to live with me and my wife after graduation, and who remains today one of my closest friends and the husband of one of my colleagues.
Another belongs to a young woman who came to me for help when what had started out in her life as a sexual adventure turned into promiscuity and eventually into prostitution. Another is the angry face of the young Native American man from northern Wisconsin who, when I was only one three-piece suit and three weeks of time into my teaching career, stopped me cold in the middle of my scintillating account of comma splices (a topic ordered up by the common syllabus enforced on all teachers of the course) in order to offer me the frontal challenge, "Gregory, do you know what the shit you're talking about?"
Well, I did know—about comma splices, that is—and I even had a pretty good idea why comma splices seemed pretty irrelevant in the life of a young man in Lee Thundercloud's position in American society, but Mr. Thundercloud and I never came to an understanding about either comma splices or my knowledge of things more relevant to him, for he left the class and never returned. But other students stayed, and one whose story has meant the most to me over the years is, curiously, a student whose face I saw only once. The relationship between me and Sister Mary Thecla is my favorite teaching story.
I first came into contact with Sister Mary while I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago. My wife, who is now a successful children's book author, supported the two of us at the time—supplemented only marginally by my fellowships—by teaching in the suburban public schools. (One year when we were both on fellowships, we lived for an entire nine months on $1,800, including paying rent, buying our food, running a car, and purchasing a dog and a sewing machine. I suppose it's still the case that poverty doesn't mean the same thing to graduate students that it means to most other people. But that's a graduate school story, not a teaching story.)
I worked at high-paying, blue-collar, industrial jobs in the Chicago area during the summers—Youngstown Steel, Erie Lackawana Railroad, Rock Island Railroad, assorted construction jobs. During the school year, I taught school, which merely meant grading tests and essays, at the American Correspondence School (ACS), the world's largest correspondence school for high school students, located in Hyde Park right next to the University of Chicago.
Grading the essays and test papers of faceless high school students from around the world was not an ideal introduction to teaching. There was no eye contact, no body language, no questions and answers, no colleagues to consult, no talk in the hall, no consultations in the teacher's office. But I did write in the margins of my students' tests, and when they gave evidence of keen perception or good writing or intellectual aspiration, I tried to encourage their lonely dedication and isolated perseverance.
By far the most perceptive, eager, and thoughtful student I had was a young woman recently arrived in this country from Ireland—a nun, Sister Mary Thecla, assigned to a convent in White Springs, New York. Sister Mary was thrilled to be taking the high school survey course in American literature, and I was thrilled to have her as a student. She was fresh, intelligent, enthusiastic—nay, breathless—and I wrote notes of praise, encouragement, and literary and writing instruction in the margins of each of her tests and essays. On the last of her papers for the course, I attached a letter encouraging her to think about going to college and assuring her that she would certainly do well if she could only find a way to go.
I heard nothing from Sister Mary for several weeks and did not expect to hear from her again at all. But finally I did hear, and in the unexpected form of a personal letter. The day my own letter to her had arrived, attached to her final exam, Sister Mary's mother superior had been inspecting the White Springs convent, and, somehow, Sister Mary found the courage not only to show mother superior my letter but to ask if she could—on the basis of my recommendation—be given permission to attend college. The mother superior said yes, and Sister Mary was writing to let me know that, wonder of wonders, she would be attending Loyola College in Chicago at the beginning of the fall term.
Since I left Chicago for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee a little before Sister Mary arrived, I never met her, but we did correspond—not frequently, but often enough to let me know that she was loving her work and doing well. As Sister Mary was approaching the end of her college career, however, I received a call from her one day: could she and a friend come by my house in Milwaukee next Sunday afternoon for an hour or so?
At the appointed time Sister Mary arrived, a smiling young woman with Ireland in her face. She said that she did not want to finish her college years without thanking me in person for writing the letter that had made all the difference in her life. She also said that she had a gift for me, at which point she pulled a beautiful, hand-cut, 1880s Waterford crystal bowl from her bag and presented it to me. The last time she had visited her parents in Dublin she had brought this bowl—a family heirloom—back with her. She had carried it in her lap to make sure that nothing happened to it while it crossed the Atlantic. Now she wanted me to have it as a remembrance of her affection and gratitude in return for my instruction and encouragement. In an hour she was gone.
Sister Mary and I continued to correspond once or twice a year after that for a few more years, but eventually she left her order, got married, moved to California, and had children, and our relationship died a quiet and I hope graceful death. I have not heard from her since, which is probably the right ending for this part of the story.
Having been grateful and having expressed her gratitude, Sister Mary was under no obligation to be grateful forever, and she and I never spent the kind or amount of time together that would have allowed us to become friends. I only met her on the one occasion when she came to Milwaukee. We were not friends; we were teacher and student, and, like most teacher/student relationships, it was quite appropriate for ours to end at that point in time when we had each played out our proper roles.
But surely the meaning of the story does not end with the relationship. Surely the story's larger meaning is not about Sister Mary and me as individuals but about teachers and students in general. I was not a great teacher. At the time I was correcting Sister Mary's high-school reading and writing, I had never taught a class in my life and my notions of "literary and writing instruction" were pretty much canned stuff taken straight out of my college and grad school courses.
The point to this story is that regardless of whether that person is greatly talented or not so talented, whether profoundly wise or not so wise, or whether deeply insightful or not so insightful, some things just cannot happen without a teacher being on the spot and acting like a teacher, doing the things that teachers do, and relating to students as only teachers can. The point to the story, in other words, is not about the quality of my teaching but about my functioning as a teacher.
With Sister Mary, I was simply performing the functions that teachers typically perform: encouraging, advising, instructing, "bringing along." You don't have to be the smartest person in the world to perform these functions, although intelligence is always an advantage; nor do you have to have every feature of your own life perfectly in order. But you do have to be observant of the student as a student, and not so absorbed in your own disorders that you cannot see the other as represented in your students.
I take comfort from my Sister Mary story, not merely because Sister Mary honored me with her respect and gratitude, but because the story suggests to me that the career I have chosen and to which I have now devoted many years is one that can make a positive difference, not only in individual students' lives but also—indirectly and at a distance, to be sure (which is quite good enough to satisfy me)—for society as a whole.
My own ethic of personal duty tells me that I have three jobs to accomplish in this world. The first is to grow and develop, to attempt to make the most out of the gifts, talents, and opportunities that have been given to me. My second job is to make some kind of positive contribution to the world: to do something to make the world more sensible or more peaceful or more civil or more intelligent, or at least to help the people I come in contact with live lives of greater productivity, charity, and effectiveness. It is not my job to do this in some grand way, by affecting the lives of thousands or by leading the masses, but merely to make my contribution as I can and when I can.
My third duty is to enjoy performing the first two duties: to derive joy from tending to my own growth and development and from making my own contribution to the world. I cannot do any of my jobs properly if I am sour, bitter, grim, beleaguered, or persistently angry. Joy is not just the icing on life's cake; it's the yeast that transforms the flour and other ingredients into cake in the first place.
What I've found is that the various means by which I have tried to meet my ethic of responsibility get all entwined and connected. I have loved, for example, being a spouse and a parent. My wife and my children have taught me more about life and duty and responsibility—but most of all more about joy—than I could ever have learned on my own. In addition, I usually love being a home owner and a pet owner, and so on - but none of these, I find, is disconnected from my being a teacher, and my being a teacher is disconnected from none of these. "Spousing," parenting, teaching: these are all extensions of my duties to grow and develop, to make my contribution to the world, and to enjoy the life of performing the first two.
I can neither prescribe for others nor judge (most of the time) the choices that others make. I only know that I could not have grown and developed or made my contribution to the world as an insurance salesman or a stock broker (I hate trying to talk other people into buying things) or as a scientist (I am not good enough at math, although I am fascinated by astronomy and biology) or as a chef (not enough intellectual content), or as anything else besides a teacher.
The teaching life has been hard in many ways. It is, contrary to claims by the author of Profscam, both underpaid and overworked. It requires, like a lot of other professions, the greatest intensity of input during those years when many of its practitioners also need to devote great intensity to other endeavors like raising families; and the constant tightening of budgets and loss of public respect that have occurred simultaneously in the last 20 years or so create much anxiety and feelings of being underappreciated.
Yet, for me, the teaching life has been congenial to my tastes and talents. I am grateful to the profession that allows me to do things I have always loved doing—reading literature and talking with others about its beauty and significance—and that also allows me to grow, to develop, and to make my contribution to the world.
My contributions, like everyone else's, are more like investments than negative outlays. As Coleridge says in "Dejection: An Ode," "we receive but what we give." Sister Mary Thecla was every bit as important to me as I was to her. As a student, she helped me to do what as a teacher I needed to do, and as a teacher, I helped Sister Mary become what she needed to be.
More than other kinds of relationships, perhaps—such as ones based on getting people to do things they may not want to do, or, worse, things that may not be good for them—teaching offers a mutuality of tending, rewarding, and relating that moves in two directions at once: from the teacher to the student and back again. Thus, in addition to helping people get to places in the world they want to go to and helping them to do the things they want to do, teaching satisfies our deep craving for meaningful forms of social connection that are neither cynically exploitative nor personally intimate, but that nevertheless balance the personal with the professional and enrich the professional with the personal.
It is a way of life that is—at least most of the time—both civil and civilizing, a way of life that provides deep personal rewards and yet calls us out of ourselves toward important forms of service to and connection with others. Like any other mode of life, teaching can be abused or done poorly. There is no way of life that will protect us from the lapses of our own good will or the failures of our intelligence. But treated with respect for its power to shape and mold, and approached with the humility and modesty that such power requires, teaching can be a rich and rewarding life. Sister Mary's crystal bowl, refracting the light as it sits on top of one of my bookcases, reminds me of this important truth and helps make me content with the teaching life I have chosen.
© 2005 Copyright Marshall Gregory