By Paul M. Lewis
When I was a young man in my early to mid 20’s, I spent four years teaching in a high school in rural upstate New York. There were a number of things I found interesting about the experience, and a few that were annoying, but overall it was a surprisingly positive experience. I say surprisingly because I had taken the job mostly to get a deferment from the draft. This was in the late 1960’s, and the country was enmeshed in the tragedy of the Vietnam War. Like many people my age, although by no means all, I was very much against the war. So, once I returned from graduate school in France, where I’d gone on scholarship directly after getting my bachelor’s degree, I knew I had to face the music of the military draft. The deferment they gave at the time for teaching came in very handy. My other option, I’d often thought, was to flee to Canada. And what a different life that would have led to. To an extent no doubt, maybe even if half-subconsciously, I’d planned out in advance the possibility of teaching, because I had managed to get a credential during my last year as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Albany, just before leaving for France.
But, as teaching high school was not really my first choice of a career, I’ll admit I began with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. In my defense, I was only 23 years old, and what does anyone know at that age? While in France, I had perfected my ability to speak the language pretty well, having gone there initially with a good grounding in grammar and literature. Once there, I learned how people in the street really spoke. I learned, for example, that a “cigarette,” which I smoked at the time (Gauloises, s’il vous plaît), was called “une clope,” and “un franc,” the monetary unit then in use (this was decades before the Euro) was more commonly referred to as“une balle.” I also delved into what I thought of as the intricacies of Existentialist philosophy, and considered myself something of a philosopher-poet. Neither of which, as it turned out, I was.
As cringe-worthy as it may be to admit today, I thought of myself as somehow above the crowd when it came to these rural high school teachers. The locale was Lebanon Springs, New York, located in the lovely Berkshires, just a few miles from the Massachusetts border over the mountain from Pittsfield. If a person has any degree of self-awareness or openness, one of the things you soon begin to realize is just how dumb you can be. And I found this out soon enough about myself. If that sounds like too harsh a judgment on a twenty-something year old, maybe the least that can be said is that I discovered just how inexperienced I was in life, particularly when it came to people who actually did something expertly, many of whom had been doing it for a long time, some even before I was born.
That was the first thing that came to light in Lebanon Springs: I saw that the men and women who taught English there, or Social Studies, or Math, or Science were of the highest caliber. They were, by and large, smart, engaged, hardworking, funny, and creative; they cared deeply about their students and about the craft of teaching. And in spite of all, they treated me well, with kindness, courtesy and good grace. There were the occasional yahoos, and here maybe my prejudices further show themselves, gym teachers mostly, who couldn’t distinguish anguish from absurdity (I’m back to Existentialism again), or a Monet from a Manet. But even they, I saw, did their best every day for their students and helped those who most needed it. In four years, I never heard one teacher speak disparagingly of their students; no one ever called them stupid, or fools, or worse. Okay, sometimes they said they were lazy; and some, in fact, were lazy. Just as you can find in pretty much any grouping of a thousand or so human beings anywhere on earth.
As a new teacher, people often asked me if I had any trouble with classroom discipline. As a matter of fact, I did not. But then, this was a rural community and, so far as I knew at the time, recreational drugs were pretty much nonexistent. I’m sure some of the students drank, but that was probably the extent of their substance abuse. I was also working weekends and summers at a local reform school for teenage boys, and I’d learned a few things about how to manage groups of teenagers. Most of the time, it was pretty simple. I decided I would treat my students respectfully, as if they were adults, and intelligent ones at that, and I expected them to act as such; and somehow that seemed to work.
But even at the high school where I taught there were a few outliers. There are always a few, the wise guys who like to mouth off. As odd as it may seem, they were usually my favorites. I liked the bad-boy energy (almost never were they girls), the spirit of rebelliousness, and the intelligence and insight into the bizarreness and absurdity of the world that came with it. These were the ones who were forever asking what the French word for “a seal” was. How they had ever heard in the first place, I don’t think I ever found out, but somebody had told them that the marine mammal we call a seal was, in French, called “un phoque.” And anyone who has even a passing familiarity with French phonetics knows that the pronunciation of this word sounds almost identical with the English word “fuck.” So, this was great hilarity, although by the hundred and fiftieth time I was asked, I will admit to feeling a little bored by it all. Usually I would just stare blankly at them, shake my head, and walk away. For the most part, though, students were in my language classes—French and Spanish—because their fathers had told them that they needed it if they ever had any hope of getting into college. No one, or virtually none, had any real interest. But I had come to expect that, and doing so became just another part of teaching the class.
I liked all of my students. If that sounds like an exaggeration, it’s not; I actually did. They were good kids, and I did my best to teach them something about another culture, another way of being in the world, if not (lastingly anyway) another language. And some seemed to like me, too. One of them, Tommy C., I taught for three years, and it occurred to me he might have had a little bit of crush on me. Not that I ever responded in kind, except—as much as I could—to be kind to him. Or, I don’t know, maybe he just saw me as a father figure, or an older brother. Curiously, it turned out that our birthdays were on the same day, November 2nd, seven or eight years apart. Somehow, he always contrived to secretly pass me a bottle of Courvoisier cognac on or around that date, as a gift. I probably should never have taken it, and no doubt could have gotten in a lot of trouble for having done so, but he seemed so pleased about it, so delighted with doing so that I always took it. How a sixteen year old could have gotten hold of it in the first place, I never asked.
If I were teaching today, I would never accept such a gift. Maybe it was a measure of my own immaturity and insecurity at the time that I did so. Nothing more ever came of it. He never referred to it later, never appeared to expect anything in return; nor did I reciprocate with better grades, or any sort of special attention. He was already an excellent student anyway, so from that point of view there was no need to. But I sometimes think of him, and wonder what became of him, what he did with his life, and if he is happy.
I hope he is, as I hope all of my former students may have gone on to lead useful and fulfilling lives. Chances of that are slim, of course. How often does that happen with any group of people? More likely, some succeeded, some managed to get by, while others struggled, doing what they could to overcome one failure after another. That is, after all, the way of the world, isn’t it?
What I learned in the four years I taught high school has stayed with me all my life; and what I learned from my teaching colleagues may have been even more important. As Walt Whitman says in the preface to his great poem, Leaves of Grass: “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy…” Later, he continues, “re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book,” and “dismiss whatever insults your own soul.” Isn’t Whitman saying that learning from life is the best kind of learning? How else do we attain anything of real, lasting importance?
A couple of years after I left my job as a high school teacher, I was astounded to receive an invitation from the senior class to be the speaker at their graduation. With gratitude, some reluctance, and a large dose of humility, I accepted. My first partner—lover is the word we used in those days—and I had been living in Brigantine, New Jersey. As ill luck would have it, soon after accepting the invitation he and I decided to split up. I will admit to having been devastated about it all and wanted to withdraw from giving the commencement speech. But, in the end, I soldiered on and went ahead with it: and he came with me. I have no idea now what I said to these students, but the energy in the room did me a lot of good. I remembered that I was liked, if maybe not loved, and that I could like—and love, if I chose—in return. It was the last time I saw these young men and women, but not the last time I have thought about them. There is no doubt in my mind that they were my teachers, as much as I was theirs, and for that I will always be grateful.