Learning the Hard Way

Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.              —Michael Corleone (The Godfather III)

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Nathaniel West, Natty Bumppo, James Fenimore Cooper, Henry James, James Thurber, James Joyce, Joyce Kilmer.  The Crucible, Arthur Miller, Henry Miller, The Mill and the Floss, Silas Marner, George Eliot, T.S. Eliot, J. Alfred Prufrock.  Bret Harte, Hart Crane, Stephen Crane, Ichabod Crane, Washington Irving, John Irving.  It is all mushing together.

In my fourth final retirement, someone with a sense of humor thought it would be amusing for me to teach English full-time for three months while the bonafide teacher is on maternity leave. I just finished my second month and am totally immersed in the curriculum of high school juniors and seniors.  We are cramming for the SAT’s, reading short stories, and beginning The Great Gatsby.  Soon I will be worrying about acne, passing the road test for my driver’s license, curfew, and getting a date for the Spring Fling.

I am not quite sure why I am here.  Perhaps my function is to serve as a placeholder because I have no ambition or designs on a tenured position.  A younger job seeker may not have wanted to commit and risk losing out on a steadier gig.  It may also be the work of the mischievous gods and sprites that hide car keys, cell phones, and important papers.  I also suspect that I have, as the psychologists say, “unfinished business” around this stage in my life.

When I was sixteen, only a few close friends knew that my mother had become bedridden with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disorder that, combined with cancer, would soon take her.  High school was the lowest point in my life.  As a self-absorbed adolescent, I felt my mother’s illness made me different, and I was the holder of an embarrassing secret.  Many wince at recalling their high school years, but I squint, grimace, and change the subject.

It is odd but cathartic to walk the crowded, locker-filled hallways, albeit 3,000 miles and light years away.   It feels wonderful to be surrounded by so much youth, hope, energy, and anxiety.  I feel empathy for my students and the complexity of their lives. Searching for an example of irony in honors literature, I shared that my first foray into any kind of an advanced class was as their teacher.  It is great to have age, experience, maturity, and the teacher’s edition of the text.  Like returning to a long-neglected crossword puzzle with fresh eyes, I am able to interpret poems, short stories, and novels that were a jumble to me when I was in school.

In high school terms, athletes talk about when they are “in a groove” and playing well: the game “slows down.”  They feel poised and confident even when the ball and other players are moving at breakneck speed.  Teaching can be that way.  Thirty young people in a small room for 55 minutes can feel chaotic.  Mastering the curriculum and presenting it with appropriate respect and more than occasional irreverence is a challenge.  Apologies to William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” but I feel that in football jargon, I am the wizened, grizzled quarterback.  “My head is bloody but unbowed.”  I am now able to call a smart play, and deliver a floating spiral to the right spot downfield.  My students are running mental patterns everywhere but toward Willa Cather.  I do not control the outcome but often above the din and indifference…touchdown!!!

Sharing what I have learned the long hard way is very fulfilling.  It also doesn’t hurt to have the answer key.


Tom H. Cook is still befuddled by Booth Tarkington, Thomas B. Costain, and Eudora Welty.   He is able to distinguish Sinclair Lewis from Upton Sinclair.

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