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A Thousand and One Classrooms

ISSUE:  Summer 1982

Mickey rode out of Groton like the Marlboro Man, in boots, a ten-gallon hat, and carrying a bull shooter. He disappeared after the first class, and I didn’t see him again until I decided to treat myself to a bottle of wine. While bending over looking at a cheap Chablis, I felt an arm curl cousin-like around my shoulder. It was Mickey with a quart of Jim Beam in one hand and now me under the other. “Sam,” he said, “I want to congratulate you on that lecture. Never have I heard a first-year man do so well. You might have noticed,” he continued without a pause, “that I have not been in class recently. I’m a senior and have,” he added with an intimate squeeze, “certain responsibilities. You probably won’t see much of me.” Before I could straighten, much less answer, he moved his hand from my shoulder to just above my elbow and leading me down the aisle, he pointed confidentially to a Beaujolais. “Sam,” he said, “I recommend this.” Then balling his hand into a fist and shaking it like a coach encouraging a nervous substitute, he added, “Keep up the good work, sport.” With that he strode out of the door and into the night. That was the last I saw of Mickey. I gave him a D. The wine he recommended wasn’t worth a damn.

Mickey deserved a higher grade. He and others like him have given me many A times since I began teaching. By treating education cavalierly such students deflate academic pretension and lighten teachers’ lives. When I taught in Jordan, four students once handed in the same essay. I called Hashem into my office and asked him where he got the essay. “Allah gave it to me,” he answered. “There must be a mimeograph machine in heaven then,” I said leaning forward aggressively, “because three other students turned in the same essay.” Hashem paused, folded his hands together in his lap, and rolled his eyes toward the ceiling before he replied. “Ah, sir,” he said, “there are many true believers in the class. Allah is merciful and compassionate and would not forget them.”

Hashem and his friends passed. Teachers cannot resist tricksters because they themselves are snake-oil salesmen preaching the miraculous virtues of their cure-alls to students and congressmen. Manner, not matter, is important. I learned this long ago while I was a graduate assistant at Princeton. One Saturday afternoon while Brown was skinning the Princeton tiger, my friends and I inhaled whiskey sours. Since the game was lost and our thermoses empty, we started home at halftime. As I tottered toward the ramp to leave the stadium, there was a great hullabaloo above me. I looked up and saw Benjamin, my best student, pointing at me, laughing, and yelling something in ancient Chaldean. My career, I thought, was over before it began. If Benjamin could see from that far away that I was uncorked, others would have noticed. I didn’t look forward to class on Monday. When Benjamin came into the room, he glanced at me and then turned red. He whispered something to the boy next to him. Involuntarily the boy’s hand rose to his mouth in horror. “Should I resign now or later,” I thought. After class Benjamin approached me. “Mr. Pickering,” he said, scuffing his shoes; “I want to apologize. I had too much to drink on Saturday at the football game. You are my favorite teacher,” he continued, his voice husky with emotion; “when I saw you, I felt happy and wanted to say hello. Instead I behaved miserably.” “Ben,” I said wrapping my arm around his shoulders, “Ben, I knew you had too much to drink. Once, a long while ago, I did the same thing.” “Oh, sir,” he exclaimed. “No, enough, Ben,” I continued taking him by the elbow and leading him to the door; “let’s let bygones be bygones. Just don’t let it happen again.” Yes, yes indeed, Allah is merciful.

A lifetime of little duties shackles the university professor. Nothing he does is of much consequence. Teaching is the only profession I know in which one has the same responsibilities at 45, 55, and 70 that he had at 30. While his peers regulate the corporate interests of the nation, the professor spends days in prolonged discussions of inessentials, whether or not, for example, freshman English should require eight essays or six essays and two examinations. At 40 he sees college compatriots he thought less talented assume positions of power and become men not simply of influence but of vision, grace, and understanding. Progressive responsibilities have challenged their abilities and led to growth while the professor’s talents have atrophied. Like King Shahriyar in the Arabian Nights who loses faith in his wife, then in all mankind, the teacher becomes despondent. Instead of chopping the heads off a succession of brides as did the King, the teacher decapitates ideas. He sinks into rumpled arrogance and like any member of a comfortable but ultimately impotent and listless class, he becomes a scoffer, damning change and originality.

Fortunately, a remedy lies at hand. As Scheherazade’s tales delivered the King from his melancholy, enabling him to imagine the beauty of life, so hours in the classroom can free the teacher from dryness of spirit and can stretch for a thousand and one days, peopling eternity with Mickeys, Hashems, and Benjamins. Enchantments stranger than those that bind genii influence students. When discussion in a writing course plodded through a ponderous account of post-adolescent love, Joe jumped out of his seat and holding up a two-by-three-foot picture of a rooster shouted, “What are we going to do about this chicken?” Before I could cook up a witty culinary retort, the boy next to him grabbed his shirt and said, “Hey, man, you’re going to get your stones crushed.” Joe, who was flying on something stronger than the wings of a Rhode Island Red, answered, “I’m too high to get my stones crushed.” “Man,” the other boy replied, “they’ve got rock quarries even on the tops of mountains.” Writing classes, of course, bring out the bewitched: the boy who brought a glass of orange juice to class, drank the juice, and then ate the glass, or the girl who came with a cockatoo on her head and didn’t say a word although the bird tried to speak.

One of the lighter stories in the Arabian Nights is “The Historic Fart.” Although they are rarely historic, such things occur in the halls of ivy. Harold was the janitor who cleaned the English department where I once taught. He was a man addicted to high spirits and low living. While cleaning, particularly on Mondays, he would let fly rousers. This particular Monday Jonathan had come into my office to complain about a grade. Jonathan’s conceptions were immaculate, but his papers were flawed. I once attempted to cushion the inevitable C by praising the first sentence of an essay. “This sentence,” I said, “is quite good.” “It ought to be,” Jonathan responded, “I wrote it.” Jonathan was just biting into his complaint and my spirits when Harold went whistling past the open door. “Surely,” Jonathan said, “if you had thought at all when you read this paragraph, you. . . .” He did not finish the sentence as disdain swept across his face. “Good Lord,” he exclaimed and then, shuddering, he jerked his paper off my desk and left the office. A moment later I knew the reason. In this case an ill wind boded well, and Jonathan never bothered me again.

Getting students out of the office before unpleasantness occurs requires skill. One morning after an inspired Freudian lecture on “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Frog Prince,” a ferocious student trailed me into my office. “Professor Pickering,” she said, her eyes redder than those of witches, “I have never been in a class with so much sex.” “What ho!” I said. “Whereabouts—where was it? I missed it. Were you involved? Gracious, a nice girl like you,” I continued as I looked at my watch and headed for the door. “I am sorry I have an appointment,” I added, and before she could say another word I was down the hall, around the corner, and hiding in the men’s room. Often the less said in an office the better. The new teacher is usually conscientious and expects his students to be the same. When a boy came to my office to reschedule a test being given the next hour, I turned on him like a roundhead and demanded an excuse. “I have to go home,” Buck explained. “So do I—-at one o’clock for lunch,” I snapped. “Why do you have to go home now?” I should have left well enough alone. Buck pointed downward. “Why are you pointing at the floor?” I asked. “It’s not the floor; I’m not pointing at the floor. I’m pointing at my. . . .” and then he paused. “Lice, sir,” he continued. “I have pubic lice.” “Go!” I shouted waving my arm toward the door. “Go immediately and don’t come back until they are gone. You need not see me about the exam. I will give a copy to the secretary and you can get it from her when you return.” He went, and I left shortly thereafter myself, stopping only to ask Harold to pay particular attention to the furniture when he cleaned my office. Since then, no student has ever had to explain why he wanted to delay taking my examination.

The good educational life requires more tolerance than the good Christian life. In the good classroom many are chosen and both the path and gate are wide. It is easy to be a petty tyrant, mocking those who appear stupid, lazy, or weak. For six weeks Butch did not say a word in freshman English. Then one day when we were starting King Lear, I asked “What do Goneril and Regan think about their father?” Amazingly Butch waved his hand. “Yes, Butch,” I said with my sweetest honeysuckle smile. “They don’t give a shit about their father,” he replied. Like an unwed mother at an Episcopal Church, the answer made people roll their eyes and shift in their seats,

“No one,” I thought, “can say that in my class” and I was tempted to be harsh. I wasn’t; instead I answered, “absolutely right, they didn’t give a poop about their father.” The absurdity of poop shifted attention from Butch to me. After class I called the dean of freshmen. I learned that Butch was a veteran who had spent 13 months in hospitals and had been released only two weeks before school began. The dean was worried because he was silent in class. His speaking was a breakthrough for him and for me as I learned that tolerance and kindness were more important than my dignity.

Ideas are relatively unimportant in an English course. Occasionally a professor introduces a student to a subject that will influence his life, but for the most part students carry the characters of teachers away in their memories and not ideas. When I received a B in a course at Sewanee, I went to Mr. Martin’s office. “Mr. Martin,” I said; “I made A’s on all the tests and yet I got a B. How can that be?” “Just a minute, poor Pickering,” he said and rummaged through a file box. He pulled out a card and showed it to me. “Pickering, here are the midterm grades from all your other courses. You had B’s; you are not an A student.” “But Mr. Martin,” I answered; “I got A’s in all those courses for the semester.” “Pickering,” he said looking at me over his glasses; “you are not lying are you.” “No sir,” I replied. “Oh, dear,” he said picking up a pencil and writing a note; “I have made a mistake. Take this to the registrar.” I got my A with little trouble; the registrar had seen many notes like mine.

When I was in college, the relationship between faculty and students was less sane and more humane than now. Most English teachers came from small towns in which personalities were more important than ideas. As conversation concentrated on the comparatively static relationships in the town and rarely drifted to the abstract, so literary criticism was historical, exploring the roots of what everybody agreed was a familiar tradition. Today English teachers come from cities. Town and tradition have almost vanished. In the city the phenomenon of movement rather than the influence of place or tradition is important. From traffic to neighborhoods all moves and one doesn’t hear stories so much as he notices juxtapositions. The absurd abuts the rational; and as landscapes and neighbors change rapidly, the only reality seems the abstract reality of ideas, not a narrative reality with a beginning, middle, and end filled with accounts of people. From the city comes the contemporary critic who denies not simply literary tradition but texts themselves. In class the familiar relationship between student and teacher has gone the way of small town gossip, and critics concentrate on the flow of ideas between people rather than on people themselves.

In a profession which pays lip and sometimes financial service to writing, putting literary criticism into perspective before one tumbles into uncritical despair is difficult. Chair fever strikes the professor early in his career. In graduate school students learn to admire authorities on Meredith or Clough, and the brightest determine to occupy a chair some day, little imagining that it will fold beneath them and leave them flat with hearts aching and spirits broken. Immunization is not easily come by. Unknowingly a student vaccinated me. After returning to the United States after teaching a year in Jordan, I wrote Joseph, one of my former students, and mentioned I was writing a book. “How happy I was,” he answered, “and still to receive a letter from you. I read it thrice, or more, enjoying your words as if you were present and talking with me. Through your words and lines, I draw a very beautiful picture of your face. I am happy to know,” he continued, “that you are writing some books. I wish for you a very bright future in writings. I hope that you will be as prominent as Shakespeare one day.”

Joseph’s letter purged me, and dreams of Harvard and a chair disappeared before they became incurable. Not only do letters from students cure academic pretension but they bring joy. “Dear prophessor,” Mayada wrote from Syria, “Your nice letter just arrived. I read it deeply. It made me like the bird in the sky. Since I receive it, my pleasure seem to be finding no place on the earth.” When melancholy falls upon teachers, they often turn to colleagues for relief. Unlike Mayada’s bird soaring aloft on pleasure, worldly wisdom has clipped their wings. What colleagues say is frequently memorable but it rarely points to pleasure beyond the earth. “I hope I never see the day,” a teacher told me, “when the son of a millionaire can’t get into Dartmouth.” A colleague in the Middle East belonged to one of the richest families in the nation. While many students lived in hovels in refugee camps, she lived like a princess. “What I dislike so much about the poor,” she once told me, “is their envy.”

“Your students won’t resent it,” a colleague confided in me, “if you give them A’s.” The world still lies open and promising before students and unlike adults they don’t resent much. Few students believe they will fail in life, and their bright optimism is catching. The lives of students like Scheherazade’s stories breathe life into the brittle academic day. Although Pixie had a smile like Christmas in the country, she spent an unhappy first term in college. Her parents telephoned at night to see if she were in her room. In the dormitory, Pixie’s nicest intentions turned sour. When she cooked fudge for her floor, she left out the sugar. Aside from giving her a copy of The Joy of Cooking, I could do little about the fudge. But I did manage to sweeten her parents on Parents’ Weekend. They came to my home for sherry and as we chatted, I said, “Pixie seems unhappy. When such a splendid young lady is unhappy, something is wrong with the world.” The telephone calls stopped, and one spring morning as I walked across the college green, I heard a girl cry out, “Professor Pickering! Professor Pickering. !” Pixie came running across the grass; she seemed brighter than the blooming daffodils. “Professor,” she burst out when she reached me; “the most wonderful thing has happened. I think I’m in love.” So was I, but Pixie never knew it.

It would take a saint not to fall in love with his students. And I am afraid that as Adam said when the angel found him strolling about in the garden in a blue blazer, Oxford grey trousers, and Weejuns and with a cigar in one hand and a snifter in the other, “the young woman asked me and I did eat.” Age brings, if not morality, at least incapacity, and climbing stairs, not youthful beauty, takes the breath away. Still, it is harder for the not-so-young teacher to escape his youthful ways than for an anaconda to shed his skin.

Susan made Burns’s red flower look like the last rose of summer. This past year when I handed out a final examination, Susan stumbled against my desk. She was sick. Because it was eight o’clock Sunday morning and the lounges in the building were locked, I decided to take her to the infirmary which, happily, was only 400 yards away. Since Susan could hardly walk, I put my arm around her back and under her arm and set off half-carrying her. Every ten or so steps, she fell weakly against my chest, and I had to put my other arm around her for support. Since it was early in the morning, I hoped that luck would be with me and no one would see us. Alas, age shortens luck. “Well,” my chairman said later that morning, “what was she like?” “Who?” I answered, suddenly wishing that I were in the infirmary. “The good-looking babe—who the hell else?” he said. “Sick,” I blurted out, “she was sick and I took her to the infirmary.” “Any jackass looking at you two could see that you took her,” he said. “Just try to do it in a less public place in the future.”

A term resembles a life in miniature. The beginning with its turmoil and frenetic activity is birth and youth. The middle with its intense work and energy parallels man’s active creative years, while the end drifting to final examinations resembles old age and death. At the completion of a term students leave for their homes or begin new lives. Drained and alone, the teacher can become despondent. The next term brings rebirth, but the trauma of beginning and ending, breaking life into four-month cycles, is exhausting. Moreover, the structure of the term forces the teacher into taking short views of life. Instead of focusing on long-range goals, dreams fall into the rhythm of the term and become associated with the immediate. Instead of being part of an indefinite and consequently infinitely shapable future, failure and gratification, and the concomitant loss of possibilities, become the present. Teaching makes one acutely aware of loss. Not only do students vanish just when one gets to know them, but the teacher confronts his mortality and deteriorating powers each term. Unlike other occupations in which one associates primarily with one’s peers and with whom one ages imperceptibly and often unconsciously, the teacher faces perennial youth. Each fall the teacher is a year older while the students are the same age. A generation may pass, but students are always 20. To escape the sense of loss one has to escape the self, and the best way is through the classroom which like Scheherazade’s stories not only entertain but also teach. Loss of youth is only a trifle when compared to what students lose. When Ali missed a week of classes at the University of Jordan, he came to my office and apologized. He had been in Lebanon. Phalangists, he said, had overrun his village. They had killed twelve members of his family, seven men and five women. He was the oldest male left and had to arrange the burials. Shrugging his shoulders, he looked out the window for a moment, then turned to me and said, “Christians kill Moslems; Moslems kill Christians. That’s life.”

For the teacher the thousand and one classrooms is life. If literature as some critics say is about itself, then certainly the classroom is about itself. My wife came from the classroom. Her father taught me in graduate school, and one fall when we were both in London on fellowships, I visited him and his family. As I went to the classroom for a job and stayed for life, so I went to his house for literature and stayed for a wife. At the conclusion of the Arabian Nights, King Shahriyar embraced Scheherazade and proclaimed a feast. The feast ended after 30 days. For the professor the feast never ends. What is cooked may not appeal to the gourmet, but the courses are always intriguing. Sometimes the teacher himself is served. “I do say that I missed you rare fried,” Ahmad wrote, “I am happy to hear that you want to write essay about Syria. I hope to be accompanied with well-known.” The university prefers its professors hard-boiled and not “rare fried,” and I will never be well-known. I will, though, be well-entertained and very happy.


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