“Jennifer just needs to work up to her potential.” — Every Teacher I Ever Had Before Twelfth Grade.
This week I had a wonderful exchange on Facebook with my high school English teacher. I’d read an article online in which the author professed that the first poet she fell in love with was John Donne. Me too! Donne was more than my first poet, though; my introduction to John Donne coincided with one of the times my life cracked open. I posted about this on Facebook, and mentioned the teacher who introduced me to Donne with his frank poem, The Flea. One of the things I’ve noticed about the best teachers is that they have great memories. Bob Glidden taught me twenty-five years ago, but somehow he still remembers who I am, along with the thousands of other students he taught during his career.
I was mostly an indifferent student, far too dreamy and ill-directed to be a consistent achiever. I would do well in the things that were easy or interesting for me, and scrape by in subjects like math or chemistry, which bored me. However, solely by virtue of my test scores and reliable achievement in reading and writing, the school usually placed me in advanced classes. The summer before my senior year in high school, after a middling academic performance to that point, I decided it was time to get my shit together. I have no recollection of what motivated me to make this decision. My brother was home from college, and he was interesting, and had read all sorts of things and played all kinds of music, and that made an impression. For the first time, I’d also felt the call of other places, and the urge to acquire knowledge about them. Or it could be that I finished my junior year and realized I had one more year before things got real. Maybe maturity just caught up with me.
So that summer, I decided to educate myself. I read classics like The Good Earth and A Moveable Feast, and asked my brother to make tapes of music I should hear. He provided me with good jazz, Mozart and Strauss waltzes. I took advantage of my father’s reluctance to say no to any book I wanted to buy. When my senior year started, having simply decided to do so, I earned nothing but A’s. For the first time I saw my name on the “A” Honor Roll, and the clean 4.0 on my report card. I liked it.
Part of it was easy, because I landed in Bob Glidden’s Advanced Placement English class, for which I’d receive college credit. Mr. Glidden was a fairly recent arrival at my high school and therefore an unknown quantity. His class was a revelation. He was the kind of teacher who simultaneously maintained a relaxed and comfortable classroom while still being clear that he expected you not to be an idiot. If you fell down on the job, or didn’t have your homework, or your performance was otherwise short of what you were capable of doing, he would good-naturedly wad up a piece of paper and throw it at you. He had very precise aim, and you could expect to be hit on the head if you didn’t duck in time. He was, like many of my favorite people, wickedly funny. One kid weakly professed to have been sick the night before and therefore unable to do his homework. “Sounds to me like you had a bad case of lazyasseria,” chuckled Mr. Glidden pointedly. And he had an uncanny sense for when someone really did have a bad case of lazyasseria.
Unlike almost every teacher I’d encountered at my high school so far, Mr. Glidden was refreshingly real, did not take himself too seriously, and seemed unconcerned with most orthodoxy. This was back when teachers still had some curricular discretion, and Mr. Glidden filled our year with John Donne’s The Flea (what high school student couldn’t take to a 17th century poet who wrote about sex?), the riveting Spoon River Anthology, Shelley, Keats and Wordsworth. I do wonder whether Spoon River is still taught in high school these days. It’s a blunt, quasi-feminist piece of work, with its frank talk about botched abortions, unavenged rapes, marital hatred, and small town hypocrisy. It was such a radically honest work that it pried my teenage eyes open and propped the lids with a stick. I cannot imagine such a work being taught these days without some parent throwing a fit.
Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has said, about talking to young black kids about education:
What I generally try to do is avoid messages about “hard work” and “homework,” not because I think those things are unimportant, but because I think they put the cart before the horse. The two words I try to use with them are “excitement” and “entrepreneurial.” I try to get them to think of education not as something that pleases their teachers, but as a ticket out into a world so grand and stunning that it defies their imagination. My belief is that, if I can get them to understand the “why?” of education, then the effort and hard work and long study hours will come after. I don’t know how true that is in practice, but given that I am asked to speak from my own experience, that is the lesson I have drawn.
I think everyone should own their education.
I don’t know if any of that works. But I am convinced that my problem was not mere laziness nor a lack of work ethic. Work ethics don’t magically appear. Mine is most evidenced when I understand why I am working and when I find that “Why” compelling. I never really had that as a student. “Try harder” has to have some actual meaning beyond sloganeering.
This principle applied with equal force to a young, privileged white girl. I didn’t have the “why” as a student either, but I found it for the first time in the Advanced English class. Saved from labels and the tendency of other teachers to dismiss me because I didn’t fit their definition of a good student, I was able to see in Donne, Keats, and Hemingway that grand and stunning world that defied my imagination. This carried over into other classes, where I was able to see a reason for working hard there, as well. My Spanish teacher drily noted that I seemed to have “turned over a new leaf” in my third year in her class. But it had occurred to me that perhaps Spanish could be yet another portal to that grand and stunning world. (And it was. I’ve since used my high school Spanish in both Puerto Rico and Madrid.) I leaped from there to college, where I was mostly able to pick my own classes, and further own my education.
I’ll always be grateful to Mr. Glidden – and to myself, as well – for opening up that world to me, and for never allowing me to let myself down without popping me square in the head with a wad of paper. To some extent, this is how I live today, too. I have an enormous capacity for hard work as long as I can see that grand and stunning world at the end of it. I may never be as reliably wealthy as someone with a more generalized ability to work hard. But I’ve known that world in all its intensity, and that’s quite enough for me.