I wonder if everyone who retires from a consuming and intense career that they love needs a lot of time, not just to deal with the big change retirement involves, but to fully understand what they did for however long they did it.
I taught words, writing, ultimately, mostly freshman composition, but that isn’t all I taught. My career — once I left grad school — was first as a teacher of English as a second language.
Most teachers who taught ESL back in the beginnings of the profession (where I joined it in the early 1980s) were linguistics majors, very different from what I was, a literature major. My perspective on language was different. Linguists study the language per se, and I had studied how people used the language to express meaning to others.
I still think that’s what language is for.
I did this for almost 15 years, and I taught every language skill — reading, listening, writing, grammar, conversation — to international students from all over the world, but I did not fit in with my colleagues and, ultimately, as the field grew into a “field” and there were advance degrees offered in Teaching English as a Second Language, I was pushed out.
That was fine with me. I was ready to move on, and I did; I made a transition to teaching native speakers. It was a fun transition because, for a while, I had a foot in two worlds. I taught after-work classes in San Ysidro, a town on the border of Mexico, to adults, Mexicans, and I loved it. In the early mornings, I taught freshman comp. During the day I continued to labor at my day job at the international school until I had enough hours at local community colleges to fill the mosaic of financial necessity.
Last night, as I watched the ending of the 2000 film, Longitude, I realized what I did for 35 years.
I taught ONE thing.
I taught Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Often I taught it directly — and other times I taught it indirectly. It was the reason I was in front of the classroom. Last night, watching Longitude, listening to the character of John Harrison make, as an old man, his very impassioned plea to a panel of academics who had no idea what a “simple” mechanic was doing or what it meant, I heard myself. I heard words I never said to the people I worked for. In case you don’t know the story, John Harrison was an 18th century carpenter and clock maker who developed — and built — a clock that would work at sea and establish accurate lontitude.
The question in life that is most important — to me — is “What’s real, anyway?” This is not a literary question. In a sense, it is a science question. It was the question perplexing pre-longitude mariners, phrased as, “Where ARE we REALLY?” John Harrison was involved in a competition with astronomers. His continual fight was between his very practical and universal chronometer that could answer that question vs. what the astronomers BELIEVED to be real (but wasn’t).
That is the question of The Allegory of the Cave. It can take a lifetime even to get a glimmering of reality which is objective, does not depend on personal preference or opinion, but is the truth. I love that question.
I believed that a good teacher was a teacher who loved teaching. I did. I believed (still believe) in the power of inspiration — my inspiration and the power to inspire my students. As a teacher, I questioned the value of discipline when there was no inspiration, no reason behind the practice. (For me, beauty was reason enough, but it is not for everyone.) I believed that in my classroom, my students should be encouraged to seek their own reasons for learning. I believed that anything else is the donkey chasing the carrot.
Last night, watching this film, I thought of all the times I argued with students who worked only for a grade. I thought of the times I drew the donkey on the board and said, “Is this you? If is is, is it all right with you?”
And heard, “You ought to be an artist, professor!”
I thought I was.
I thought of the times I was really teaching The Allegory of the Cave and saw my students become excited by ideas that are thousands of years old. I thought of the kid who carried me out of the classroom while we were dramatizing the dialogue, he was that involved. We were at the part where Socrates said, “They must be carried or dragged out of the cave against their will.” I was playing the part of a prisoner, fastened to a wall, unable to turn my head.
I thought of how the light DOES hurt. I saw the struggles I had with students over the years who were uncomfortable because of where they were going, what they were asking and how it shook their perspective of the world. This happened more and more toward the end of my career when their pre-college/pre-university schooling had not prepared my students to yearn for a challenge. “I don’t know why I should work this hard. I don’t want to risk the carrot. I don’t want to hurt like this. I am afraid.”
(I also thought about how hurt and frightened I was when I thought I might be finished teaching, I thought of how reluctantly I had reached that understanding and how it was not until I had no choice that I saw how great it was to be finished. With or without a broken heart. It was time. )
I thought of the many students who loved The Allegory of the Cave. I recited their names to myself last night and tried to remember their faces. I thought about experiences we had shared, and I felt wonderful.
Then I wondered why I had cared so much about the question. It wasn’t really the easy way to go as a teacher, and I was constantly the rope in a tug-o-war between bosses who thought I was god’s gift to teaching and bosses who thought I was insane. I realized it’s because of what I was teaching and who I am. I was a writer teaching writing, not an academic teaching formulas, systems and rhetoric of how to write.
It’s not the same. I saw that for me writing could never be just just a matter of a five paragraph essay and perfect grammar. It’s sitting down in with one’s own ideas and learning if they are shadows or light. It was — is — running into the cave to get the people out.