Having recently written a post about a teacher of great reputation, never met but in his books, I look around me this morning at all the even less likely instruction I've had from books; at the essayists and critics, who taught me English, and how and what to read, and why, at the historians who made history authentic and relevant, avoiding the didacticism and drudgery of textbooks and time-lines and tests. I look at the books by scientists that, as I approached middle age, finally, in language as simple as this, revealed the universe to me, allowed me to see into the stars and mathematics and the physical world for the first time, at the philosophers and poets and saints who taught me something more than even I had from my parents of goodness and beauty and the power of contemplation. I review the novelists and playwrights, the travelers, the biographers and memoirists, the anthologists and editors, the personalities, the genius, in just this room, representing the best of my education, the books that have been and are my best teachers, and I remember a few of my others.
At least since Lamb, the reminiscence of school days is a commonplace of the personal essay. Not all such are recollected so fondly as Lamb's time as "a blue coat boy," of course. "Such, Such Were the Joys," by George Orwell, is a more mixed history, for example. My own memories of my teachers, are likewise mixed.
I had a few, a very few, teachers who deserve just such testimonials as are usual to the form, but I think they or their shades will have to wait a bit longer to be thanked. I am not much in the mood this morning. Likewise the worst of my many instructors in the public educational system, however deserving of disapprobation, do not really concern me just now either. The teachers I am thinking of and intending, briefly, to describe here were none of them good, but none were so wholly gawdawful, so mean or stupid or violent, as those I truly hated. (Gym teachers as a breed, deserve their own vivisection.) My spite, like my respect, may one day flower here, but not today. The simple incompetence I am concerned with now is of a kind that too infrequently passes, if not unnoticed, then without memorial, in even so humble a spot as this. It is the dirge of the drudge I sing this morning, it is the memory of the less than memorable I record.
Why not? Who's to say such do not deserve at least as much, from a less than grateful, if now somewhat more forgiving former pupil? I don't aim to name names, hurt the feelings of any still living, however unlikely they may be to ever find what I've said about them here. But reading, for example, Otto Friedrich's essay about his own school days, having just reread Orwell's, I notice how little time is spent in retrospect with the vast majority of those otherwise earnest, bored and boring, easily forgettable instructors of the young who constituted the majority union membership in every public school I attended. There are occasions to celebrate the exceptional teachers, even the occasional award, but what of the less than stellar men and women who leave little or no impression on the minds of their pupils, but who simply taught the little they knew how, and then were spared not so much as another thought?
To review them all would take more time and patience than I have. To remember so much as their names would require consulting yearbooks. I remember them more for their mild eccentricities of dress, or speech, or manner, the nearest thing to character they possessed and the nicknames that resulted and were passed down from class to class, than by even the subjects they taught. What, for example, did "Foamy" teach? He was an irascible little fat man with a comb-over and dandruff, whose moniker came from the spittle that collected in the corners of his mouth and threaten to fly out if he spoke to fast. Poor soul. There were any number given these far from affectionate names, usually for no better reason than some equally, mildly disturbing trait or tick. "The Purple Hippo" was a large and laconic composition teacher who wore too often the same boldly colored pants-suit. "Dud" was so called because he made jokes at which nobody had laughed in all the years he taught. There was a younger woman, unlike most of my elementary school teachers, already married, who taught me something in the sixth grade, though I don't remember what. All I do remember of her was her propensity to tears. What on earth made the woman so lachrymose? Certainly not anything we did to her. Her students tended to embarrassment when she went wet-eyed, and embarrassment is a killing thing in the sixth grade, so her students were, if unsympathetic, always docile enough. I don't think we even bothered her with a nickname.
What on earth made these people teachers? To a man and a woman they were as dull as "Dud," seemingly no more interested in their subjects or their students then we were in them. Surely there must have been other employment opportunities that they would not have found so drearily taxing? It wasn't exhaustion that seemed to render them so uninspired. That is the usual explanation, that such teachers had simply "burnt out." I don't accept that at all. Many were quite young still when I knew them, and the majority of the old had reputations for ineffectualness dating back, in some cases, as far as my parents' time in school. Just as there were very good teachers already evident among the annual crowd of student-teachers, come in from the local teachers' colleges, so there were the hopeless, already at twenty four or five, plotting careers of plodding indifference. The ability to teach may well be inborn. Experience may improve upon a new teacher's skills, but experience can not make of poor teacher a better one. The only result of such experience for such teachers as I am describing here, was resignation, sadly meant here as a state of suspended effort, rather than an option for doing the right thing.
The fact that so many contributed so little to my own education was perhaps the inspiration for me to insist as persistently as I did that the few who might be made to do so, were. Some were reluctant, either personally or professionally, what a pest I must have been, but I would not be refused and pursued those who might actually teach me something worth knowing as a fury might pester a prophet. Even if all some of them did was put books into my hands and send me on my way, to them, as to the best of my teachers, I am genuinely grateful.
As for that anonymous crew through whose classrooms I passed and whose names are now as lost to me as mine must long since have been to them, I hear from my nephews and from other more recent students, from as far away as Texas and as near as the campus just over the hill, they abide. Whatever might be said of them, whatever criticism or epithets they deserve, they go on, untroubled if not utterly unaware. I think that may be the one valuable lesson I could be said to truly have learned from them: endurance. They taught me just a little, however unintentionally, collectively, what it means to not be dissuaded by anything so irrelevant as lack of talent or training or skill. If my books taught me how to read and how to write, how to think, at least my least memorable teachers may have taught me how to blog.