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Mr. Crockett


ISSUE:  Spring 2002

His first name, Wilbury, had a slightly frivolous sound, like that of a furry character from Beatrix Potter or A.A. Milne, but no student would have thought of using it, even behind his back, for Mr. Crockett was the antithesis of frivolity, and his control over his troops would have been the envy of boot camp drill instructors. These troops were students in English classes at Wellesley High School, in a conspicuously affluent suburb a dozen miles west of Boston. So affluent, in fact, that a number of its sons and daughters were sent off to the private boarding schools that have long been a major industry in New England. Those who remained found a several-tiered program in English in the local high school. And those who chose the top tier discovered that Mr. Crockett was their instructor in English 21, 31, and 41—the three-year sequence that stretched from the tenth to the twelfth grade. This unusual sequence created an unusual opportunity that education schools, for which Mr. Crockett had little regard, call student-teacher interaction. Five classes a week, nine months a year, three years. That’s a lot of interaction, and while everybody cut gym and skipped social studies and foreign language from time to time, no one missed Mr. Crockett’s invariably stimulating, sometimes frustrating, and relentlessly challenging classes.

Not that he took attendance, or would even comment on a person’s absence. Mr. Crockett’s method was far more subtle, beyond even the dreams of education schools. He led his students on a search for understanding and for moral conduct—a search that was governed by his concern with language, and with the ideas and values that language expresses. His conviction that human beings, even young ones, could act intelligently and honorably had the effect of turning on a switch deep inside his students. We wanted to go to his class, to make sense of the chaos of experience, to be articulate, to align ourselves with right causes. Even then, green as I was, when an outsider asked me about the point of Mr. Crockett’s apparently strange pedagogy, I would reply something like, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” For outsiders, of course, that made it even weirder. For insiders, it was no picnic. The examined life, it turned out, was hard work.

Our formidable taskmaster did not look or act the part. Bespectacled and slightly stooped, with a crew cut revealing a receding hairline even in his mid-30’s, Mr. Crockett rarely raised his voice. When he strode into class from the teachers’ lounge, a few cigarette ashes flaked on what seemed to be his one sport coat, he was simply silent until we were. His green-gray eyes, the same color as his sport coat, swept around the classroom—where there were about 20 of us, seated at tables formed seminar-style into a u-shape—and when his eyes stopped, they penetrated.

Our class meetings were daily windfall events. Mr. Crockett seemed to have no truck with lesson plans, stated course objectives, or even textbooks. The only school-issued text that I remember was a college-level anthology of essays, mostly philosophy, called Modern Minds, that we used for a time in the tenth grade. One semester he made us all subscribe to the Atlantic Monthly. But each year he assigned some 40 to 45 major literary works (novels, plays, long poems or collections of poetry, nonfiction), and we read, among others, Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman, Dickinson, Twain, Stephen Crane, William James, Edith Wharton, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Stevens, Frost, Steinbeck, Robert Penn Warren, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Alan Paton, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Blake, Conrad, Hardy, Lawrence, Joyce, Woolf, Yeats, Auden, Dylan Thomas, Plato, Greek drama, Thomas Mann, Flaubert, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky. Mr. Crockett’s pedagogy had three parts— literature, class conversation, and writing. He believed that literature was itself a discussion, an experiencing, of the world’s great events, ideas, and truths, and he flung us headlong into that discussion as if we were mature enough to handle it. He also believed that there was a difference between what we read and what we knew, that information was converted to knowledge by being digested and reformulated in careful speech and precise writing. Intellectually, it was sink or swim, and we struggled daily to stay afloat by trying to express ourselves coherently in class and on paper.

What books do we read and in what order? Those were questions we raised early in the first year, for our friends in other classes and in private schools (whose job, Mr. Crockett once said, was “to attempt to civilize the children of the rich”) seemed to have a neat progression from world lit. to American lit. to British lit., and everyone read The Scarlet Letter and Julius Caesar and Macbeth. Mr. Crockett, for whom “lit.” was not a word, saw no reason to put literature into bins, like vegetables. Rather than The Scarlet Letter, we read The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance. And our rich literary diet was supplemented through Mr. Crockett’s belief in taking the class out to the world as well as bringing the world into the classroom. Every other month or so he bused us into Boston where, from the second balcony of the Shubert Theatre, we saw such plays as The Glass Menagerie, The Lady’s Not for Burning, A Member of the Wedding, Death of a Salesman, and Othello.(The year we saw Othello, Lawrence Olivier and John Gielgud were playing lago and Othello, alternating roles on successive nights.) Mr. Crockett also took us to Boston’s Exeter Street Theatre, where we saw Paisan, The Bicycle Thief, and other products of postwar cinéma vérité that were then beginning to transform the film industry. During fall and spring vacations, he led bus trips to New York and Washington. Some summers he took groups of students on bicycle tours of England and Europe. But books were the core of our education.

“Where do we get the books since the school doesn’t provide them?” That question, raised by someone who was sorry he or she had asked, provoked a characteristic response:

“Get your books where intelligent adults [a category that flatteringly but sometimes confusingly was meant to include us] always get their books—bookstores, lending libraries, private collections, the Random House Modern Library series, the public library, the Wellesley College library. It’s time you people began to acquire books for yourselves and to learn how to use libraries.”

“What if we can’t pay for the books ourselves?”

“Get your parents to buy them for you; it will be good for them.” That plan turned out to be easier said than done in an era before paperbacks, and the next day, when several students reported parental objections, Mr. Crockett burst into a lecture about new cars and big houses and fur coats and golf clubs and country club memberships and vacations in Bermuda—a lecture that concluded with the dispositive fact that Americans spent $20 on cosmetics for every $1 they spent on books. It was a subject we did not raise again.

Mr. Crockett, who derided The Reader’s Digest, then popular with many of our parents, did not believe in snippets or “selections from,” or in parceling out assignments in segments. He would tell us to read a book, give us about a week, and then expect us to be able to discuss and write about the work in toto. Sometimes this was a stretch. I remember when the assignment was Jean-Christophe by Remain Rolland, a French disciple of Tolstoy who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915.Turning to the last page, p.504, 1 figured that, at 60 pages an hour and two hours a night, I could read it evenings between Monday and Friday, and have the weekend off. On Wednesday, however, I discovered that the last page, 504, was simply the last page of the third section, and that the three sections were separately paginated. There were, in all, 1576 pages. Recalculating, I declared an academic emergency—which in my household exempted me from dishwashing—and ratcheted up my reading schedule. Still, by Sunday night, after a time-out for skiing, I was only half finished. As my parents went to bed, I settled into the living room and let myself down into Holland’s symphonic story of musical genius and human sympathy. I came to the last paragraph

Suddenly the Angelus sounds [as Jean-Christophe dies], and the flock of bells suddenly springs into wakefulness. It is the new dawn!

just as the sun was breaking over the low hills of Wellesley, and the school day had begun.

 

II

Mr. Crockett’s classroom was a kind of new-world Academy, without the olive trees, and like Plato’s famous school it was conducted largely by dialogue. There was little instruction in grammar, no lectures on literary history or Elizabethan England or biographies of authors, no list of literary terms to memorize, few in-class exercises or quizzes or examinations, no prepping for the SAT exams (even though Mr. Crockett was a reader for many years for the College Board at Princeton). The only quiz I remember was one hastily composed on the spot to embarrass us for not having completed some assignment, and it was not graded. The one examination that I can recall was at the end of sophomore year. There was a single question, based on an assigned reading: “Write an essay on the following quotation from Alfred North Whitehead: “What is known is nothing, philosophically speaking.”“

Mr. Crockett believed in reading, writing, and talking, and his classes were conversations and occasional panel discussions based on the assigned books, and on other works of literature and nonfiction such as John Hersey’s Hiroshima and Wendell Willkie’s One World. We quickly learned that the course texts, multitudinous and voluminous as they were, were only the beginning of what we needed to read. Many of us started—and still keep—lists of books to be read. Our class conversations also dealt with important events and ideas of the day, including the Korean War, the United Nations, the use of the atomic bomb, civil rights, post-World War II refugees, the Cold War, communism, the establishment of Israel, world religions, and world peace. The common denominator in these topics tended to be social justice, a concept Mr., Crockett emphasized our junior year by making us send a dollar a month, that we had earned ourselves, to CARE. He introduced us to a pen-pal network so we could correspond with foreign students, and learn their perspectives. A subgroup of the class met on several occasions one year to attempt to define and solve the world’s problems. Definition, we discovered, was the easy part.

It struck me at the time that our class discussions were somehow more interesting than average, and I realize now they were ongoing lessons in both thought and articulation. Day by day, with sometimes a gentle and sometimes a strong hand, Mr. Crockett steered our immature opinions and disagreements toward solid ground. Almost unconsciously, as if we were discovering these things by ourselves, we began to learn the difference between opinion and fact, how to define the terms of a discussion, how to focus on the essence of a topic, how to avoid overstating, how to sharpen a vague generalization, why clichés are linguistic used cars, how to listen, when to shut up, why different people have different perspectives, how to disagree intellectually without personal insult. Having to learn these lessons thoroughly because we had to practice them daily, we then—again more or less unconsciously—carried them over into our writing. We had ample opportunity, for Mr. Crockett required frequent, short written responses as well as two five-thousand-word papers each semester, which were often read and defended in class by their authors.

The patient way in which these lessons were delivered reveals a key feature of Mr. Crockett’s pedagogy: he took us seriously. No matter how foolish, inconsistent, and trivial we must have seemed to him at times, he gave us the one thing that adolescents crave beyond cars, sex, booze, drugs, and revolt—he gave us respect. He respected our opinions not by mindlessly accepting them, but by considering them, putting pressure on them, debating, sometimes opposing. Another way of taking us seriously was by ignoring the so-called “adolescent literature” that was then being introduced into school curricula by educators who defined “relevance” as bringing knowledge down to the students. Mr. Crockett knew, of course, that an adolescent can take away only part of a great book. But he also knew that all readings by all readers are partial, and that it is better to have part of an excellent meal than a complete dinner of junk food. He once astonished us, since we thought we had locked away at least a small part of the world’s literature, by telling us that books had to be constantly re-read, and that every reading would be somewhat different since we would have changed since the previous reading. This truth was powerfully demonstrated the first week of our senior year when Ron Bazirgan, our class president and a star athlete, died suddenly of pneumonia. There was an outpouring of school assemblies, church services, obituaries, and editorials, but they all seemed vaguely inadequate. It was only when I went to Mr. Crockett’s class that I began to find a focus for coming to terms with the death of my friend and neighbor. Mr. Crockett came in, looked at us for a long moment, opened his copy of A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, and read “To an Athlete Dying Young,” which begins

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

When Mr. Crockett finished reading, his eyes glistening, he simply walked out of the room. In his hands literature was not merely a subject or an assignment; it was a way of saying best what needed to be said most. He didn’t “teach” literature; he experienced it with us, and because it was meaningful to him it became meaningful for us.

 

Mr. Crockett also took us seriously by respecting our work. When, in the fall of 1947, one of his students tentatively showed him some poems she had written, he surprised her by reading four of them to her class. “I was overjoyed,” Sylvia Plath wrote in her journal; “[his comments] encouraged me greatly.” Thirteen years later, when she published The Colossus and Other Poems in England, Plath sent him a copy inscribed “To Mr. Crockett, in whose classroom and wisdom these poems have root.” Mr. Crockett encouraged all his students to write beyond the required class assignments, to keep commonplace books, to send off their work to editors, to think of rejection slips as battle scars that precede the victory of publication. His classes wrote radio plays that were aired over the school speaker system, produced a senior play, worked on the school newspaper and magazine, and mailed essays, fiction, and poems to the annual Atlantic Monthly school contest. Sylvia Plath collected five or six dozen rejection slips while she was in high school, and published, for pay, nine stories and poems.

And Mr. Crockett took us seriously by eschewing false praise. While he was encouraging and patient, he was also ruthlessly honest, and wouldn’t have dreamed of grading “for effort.” Asked to teach creative writing at the Cambridge School of Weston after his retirement, Mr. Crockett turned the job down, saying that he had

an uneasy feeling about people who aspire to be writers today. Most of the students aren’t really interested in the kind of discipline it takes to be a writer now. They’re not mindful of the craft, the art. They’re too easily satisfied. They aren’t aware that writing is blood, sweat, and tears. They should revise, revise, and polish, search for the right word, but they don’t have the necessary energies. They’re too easily flattered by others for work which isn’t first rate. Teachers are too easily satisfied also. Praise is too quickly forthcoming.

English 21—31—41 taught us a lesson that many students and some teachers never learn—that real criticism is not only necessary for improvement, but is also a compliment, for it shows that the critic is engaged in earnest. Tough love, one might say now, and it made us tougher intellectually. We learned to separate achievement from recognition, and began to be just a little supercilious about unearned high grades we sometimes received from teachers in other courses.

 

Although he did not prepare us for the SAT exams, or even discuss them, Mr. Crockett did mention one day, somewhat dismissively, that the verbal section was largely a vocabulary test. That hint was enough for me, and in the fall semester of my junior year I dutifully began reading five pages of a dictionary every day. Though I made it only to j, I did all right on the test. When I reported my score—which converted to the vocabulary level of a college junior—Mr. Crockett was not unpleased, but he observed that college juniors didn’t know very many words. He told us once that our school would be fortunate if it graduated one person a year who was truly educated, and, topping that, he added that the same was true for colleges and universities.

Even these comments did not seem to discourage us, for Mr. Crockett had a way of taking the wind out of your sails without quite overturning your boat. If getting a real education was that difficult, we’d simply have to work harder. He pushed us by getting us to push ourselves, to want to climb out of ignorance and adolescence and prejudice and merely repeated opinion. And he showed us a ladder, the ladder of language, with its possibilities of precision and its pleasures of grace. Dick Baughman, of the class of 1951, recently put it this way:

The quality I remember best about Mr. Crockett is his refusal to let us settle for mediocrity. I was often surprised to be pulled up short on some response I considered cute, only to realize how inappropriate it was. He helped us set high standards, and I hope we will continue to do that. I have proved the Peter Principle many times.

Over the three-year period, we could see progress in each other and in ourselves. Mr. Crockett placed special emphasis on the last paper of the spring semester. My sophomore effort was a conventional discussion of “The Amish Today,” taken from the usual encyclopedias and magazines, which I read until I had acquired enough material to fill an appropriate number of pages. By the following year, I had discovered the difference between primary and secondary sources, as well as the challenge of testing one’s own ideas. Fired by having seen a production of A Doll’s House, I wrote an essay on the uneasy relation of the individual to society in a half dozen plays by Henrik Ibsen. In my senior year I was ready to tackle an author’s complete works, and I wrote a lengthy essay on Joseph Conrad’s craft of fiction, as defined in his prefaces and achieved in his novels. My reading included 12 novels, from Almayer’s Folly to Victory, as well as Conrad’s tales and nonfiction, his autobiography, and whatever critical works and biographies I could find in the Wellesley College library. I had, of course, much more material than I could use, and thus—in my last high school endeavor—I finally discovered a key principle that was implicit in the assignments, challenges, and example set for us by Mr. Crockett. Real writing, and for that matter real thinking, like the visible tip of an iceberg, rides on the surface of a large body of submerged knowledge.

III

In 1980 Mr. Crockett, always a controversial figure in a conservative town, was forced into retirement, three years before the mandatory age of 70, by the Wellesley School Committee—an action that for many people justified Mark Twain’s observation:

First God made idiots; that was for practice. Then he made school boards.

Interviewed shortly after his retirement, Mr. Crockett told a reporter that “I have to be honest with you and tell you that it’s not been easy for me retiring. I’ve had the good fortune all my life to teach and it was terribly hard to give it up. It was my ultimate joy.” It might be possible to paint him as an amiable, idealistic, unworldly sort of Mr. Chips, who loved his students, and gently nudged them along. Nothing could be further from the truth, Mr. Crockett had set himself against every form of ignorance and stupidity known to man, and those forms occasionally included us. The flame that burned at the center of his intellect was critical, ironic, sometimes satiric. He was all too well acquainted with the world, and had many doubts about where it was headed. He believed that American society, in its tail-finned post-war boom of success, was in danger of getting it all wrong. His strictures—on materialism, television, spectator sports, celebrities, conspicuous consumption, Miss America contests, fraternities and sororities, political platitudes, journalistic distortion, and deceptive advertising—were brought home intact by youngsters eager to twit their parents and caused many an uproar around Wellesley dinner tables. Some townspeople relished his astringent intelligence, and he was the recipient of a Distinguished Service Award. Others thought Crockett was a Communist, or an atheist, or, almost as bad in Wellesley, a Democrat. He was called before the Town Board to explain his political beliefs in 1952, the year that Joseph McCarthy began his Senate subcommittee investigations into Communist activity in the U.S. and the Supreme Court ruled that “subversives” may be barred from teaching in the public schools. Mr. Crockett explained that he was a pacifist.

Perhaps it was inevitable that his career ended in a bitter dispute with the school board, which, in the spring of 1980, approved a restructuring plan that would have stripped him of the departmental chairmanship he had held for 30 years, a plan concocted by the superintendent of schools who unilaterally downgraded the principal’s evaluation of Crockett from “outstanding” to “good.” Forced retirement was his hemlock, but the school board may have had second thoughts about their most prominent teacher—one who was invited to lecture at the college level and who was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship, a John Hay Fellowship at Columbia, and a Distinguished Teaching Award by Harvard for his “legendary” teaching and “a scholarly integrity rare among schoolmen.” In 1981 the proposed restructuring plan was put on hold, and the superintendent’s contract was not renewed.

In retirement, Mr. Crockett confessed to “getting up a little later,” which for him meant sleeping in until 6:30 a.m., and he started a new career based on his conviction that “there’s a great need for volunteer work.” He taught in adult education programs, created learning tapes for the Massachusetts Association for the Blind, and served as a counselor for disturbed young adults in Boston. Wilbury Crockett died in 1994, at the age of 81.

As a teacher myself, I have some well-earned skepticism about the old saw that states “a teacher’s influence never ends.” At times I wonder if it ever begins. But old saws do have some sharpness, as Mr. Crockett’s influence surely demonstrates. Recently in Atlanta on university business, I happened to be seated at lunch with an administrator from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Previously unacquainted, we began to play the version of twenty questions that strangers use to establish some common ground for conversation. He began, and it took only three questions:

“Where did you grow up?”

“In Massachusetts, Wellesley Hills.”

“Did you go to Wellesley High School?”

“Yes.”

“Did you have Mr. Crockett?”

“Yes, I did. Did you?”

Well no, he said, not really, but his wife did, and all those discussions about him over so long a period of time had “sort of rubbed off.” In fact, he explained, they would soon be going to Cape Cod for a Crockett reunion. Her class had been having them for 40 years.

 

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