Back in the day when I was a teacher, I was often called “authentic” or “real.” People said, “You’re yourself, even in the classroom!”

I found this very odd. Who else would I be? ESPECIALLY in the classroom. It was one of the many mysteries of my career that fell under the heading, “What do other teachers do?”

I have no idea. When anyone said it to me, I wondered if other teachers put on a “teacher suit” and walked into their classes every day. For that matter, anyone at any job is not 100% themselves. We all play roles at work. Here’s me teaching:

Walk into the classroom — probably early. Sit down and assemble tools for the hour or however long the class is. Get the file of this class’ work out of your bag, gather handouts if appropriate, load the slide show if there is one, answer questions from the ones who’ve learned if they get there early they get time with the teacher. Joke around with students. Class fills. Look at the clock. At the appointed hour (or a couple minutes after, depending) assuming a (usually sincerely) friendly smile, look around the room. In my eyes is a SECOND message, “We’re starting now,” and the show began.

It was a performance. Always. I haven’t done any of it ONCE since I retired.

But, there were surprises, too. Maybe my “authenticity” emerged in THOSE moments like the time a student I liked, who liked me, said, “Fuck you!” He was angry and he meant it.

How did I “authentically” handle that? “You might want to leave now,” is what I said to him, quietly knowing that the other students’ eyes were on me. What I authentically meant was, “Get out of here before I call security.”

Of course, the kid had to come BACK to class. I knew the moment would come but not when or how. Sure enough, several days later the kid was waiting for me in the hall outside the classroom.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I was…”

“I know. That kind of thing just hurts you. You have to learn to keep your shit together. Come back to class.”

Was that authentic? Yes and no. I happened because of the contract I had signed with the university that carried with it the implication of a contract between me and my students. And that contract carried the notion that “You’re going to be interacting with 19 year olds. There’s no way to accurately assess their mental states at any given moment. Wear a psychic flak jacket when you go in there, and carry vases for the roses you’ll receive.”

What was authentic? I believed in what I was teaching. That was 100% real. I liked my students. I enjoyed the classroom. All of that, authentic. Maybe that was “different,” but I’ll never know.



The Wonderfulness of Ignorance and the Limitations of School

I was a teacher. I even — as a student — mostly liked school. BUT I had a dad who was maybe a little unusual. In second grade when I decided to become an archeologist, my dad handed me the book, Rivers in the DesertIn second grade, I couldn’t read it, but I could KIND of read it and I thought it was GREAT that I was lying on my stomach kind of reading a grown up book about archeology in a place very far away. The Negev Desert — what the book is about — showed up again later in my life when I was ten and saw David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Of course THAT led to my first love, T. E. Lawrence, and reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom. ❤ Good times.

I didn’t know what foundation all that was building until grad school, which I hated. By then I had learned that I am a self-directed learner and the greatest thing I got as a kid is curiosity and the willingness to do research. The best thing I got in grad school was a refinement of the research skills I’d learned all through school.

School is bullshit except for the things it teaches you how to do. You might learn some interesting stuff, too, you might get a foundation in the mainstream basics of everything (I did and it was great!) but, as I used to try to explain to my university students, anything you WANT to learn you’re on your own. Godwilling you have good tools.

One of the things that happened to me as a student in university — undergrad — was the discovery of an interest in what people in the past were ACTUALLY doing on a more individual level. You can’t get much of that in a history class.

Human life is a tapestry; even looking at my OWN life I see that. Maybe this will make sense. Today I spent alone, in pain from physical therapy yesterday, I was tired, but I walked the dogs which was nice, I fussed on my front flower beds and talked to the mailman and planted my second Scarlet Emperor Bean in a pot. I had contact with friends via computer and I missed a phone call. BUT — an example of just one design — in Colorado Springs, at the hospital where I will have surgery, they’re busy trying to get me organized for that. In the background, a nurse is planning a phone call because I don’t want to drive 3 hours for the pre-surgery class and 3 hours back and board the dogs. MY part of the tapestry (that they weren’t aware of) is where I live. THEIR part is to get me ready. WE have to come together and work that out. I will answer the phone at 10 am and we’ll weave our parts together for a little interval.

That’s how I think about the past or the lives of characters in my novels. I am interested in what ordinary individual (probably fictional) people were doing in an ordinary day. That isn’t taught in school. Martin of Gfenn is full of details of life in Zürich in the 13th century. To write it, I had to become a medievalist. I wasn’t before. I’d “specialized” in 19th century American literature, but that’s minor. It was the way I learned to do research. And how did I get interested in something like that, anyway? I was following an Irish monk (St. Gall) whom I’d just learned about and my friend’s mom said he should take me to see the little medieval church in the village of Gfenn. It was nearby, so why not? Well, turned out the pamphlet explained (in German which I could barely decode) that it had been part of a leper community in the 13th century.

I knew nothing about the 13th century, leprosy or Swiss history at that moment but my curiosity was piqued and I had been struck by the paintings on the walls inside the little church.

In my new role as a medievalist (Swiss medievalist to add absurdity to absurdity) I was frustrated because I couldn’t answer questions. It was only when I found — and hung out with — a Swiss Medievalist Historian who was interested in the same period in the same place, that I understood, “We don’t know.” We were “in” the 13th century, and the further back you look through time’s reverse telescope, the less certain knowledge there is.

To make it worse (better? more interesting?)  history like all other aspects of scholarship these days, is making giant strides thanks to technology. What was believed to be true about lepers in the high middle ages at the time I began writing the novel (1998) had been disproven by paleohistorians by the time the novel was pretty much finished (2005). In MY case, because I prefer primary sources — the words, paintings and artifacts of people living at the time — it wasn’t much of a problem for me. Nothing in the primary sources said ANYTHING remotely resembling the common view of the medieval leper as it was perceived in 1998 (marginalized, shunned, and persecuted). Nothing.

The most important thing is never what we KNOW but what we don’t know and how curious we are to learn more. I do a lot of research because I write historical fiction and I care a LOT about capturing the moments of people in my stories. I don’t write historical romances or didactic, polemic fiction to push an agenda. I have no agenda and romance is (to me) just pretty boring.

I don’t know why I write historical fiction. No idea at all. But when I get into a “new” world I love it. It’s like a great glowing labyrinth I can just wander in and glean what I need for the “world” that will (hopefully) live between the covers of a book. All the schooling I’ve brought with me to my novels is how to read, write, and do research. The facile superficial present-centric stuff that passed for history in my education doesn’t begin to help me — but every once in a while some little bit of it gleams, “Hey! Look at me! I’m useful!”

The biggest moment of THAT was when I was living in China in the early 80s and WISHED I’d paid attention to that paragraph in my sophomore world history class on the Boxer Rebellion. BUT the humiliating recognition of how my juvenile hubris betrayed me later in life was a lesson in itself.

As a teacher, I believed the best thing I could offer my students was something worth pursuing — they were already trained to pursue a grade, but an idea? Or a fact? Or a better answer? That was (for a lot of them) something new. But that was the best thing I got out of my time as a student — the desire to learn and the drive to pursue what I wanted to know. As for why I’m a writer, I have no idea other than I like it.

The upshot is that I know a lot of weird stuff no one needs to know and that isn’t useful to anyone but me. The way I see it, everyone else knows weird stuff that’s useful to them and useless to me (until I find I need it, then I will seek you out whether you’re dead or alive). That’s the essence of the great tapestry of human knowledge and experience. Ignorance — which is so often derided — can be — is! — the launching pad for curiosity.

Going Along

It’s taken a long time, but I’ve finally realized people don’t always see things the way I do.   😀 When I was growing up, that was already true at home. “Your feelings don’t matter,” my mom said more than once, right out there, a clear message. At school I got a different message, which was that my ideas mattered. I entered the world with the understanding, “Feelings? Useless. Ideas? Good.”

That isn’t true. Feelings are not useless and the world has been — generally — no more interested in my ideas than my mom was in my feelings. It’s kind of a surprise when, somewhere in adulthood, later in adulthood, usually, I think, but I could be wrong, we realize that we’re not all that important in the grand scheme. We’re actually pretty invisible.

To advance our ideas we have to express them, support them, often fight for them and, if we fight, it is often against something a lot more powerful than we will ever be. It’s often against the invisible force known as the zeitgeist. If we’re not (as my brother would say) “on the public pulse” our chances are not great. If Hillary Clinton (whom I did not like but believed would be a better president than His Orangeness) had listened to me, she might have won. What did I tell her? Oh, stuff like, “It’s not about being the first woman president, sweet cheeks. It might be to YOU; it isn’t to US. In the immortal words of Jello Biafra, ‘We have a bigger problem now’.” But she didn’t hear me and probably never heard of the Dead Kennedys or of Jello Biafra and, for all I know, thinks punk rock is a bunch of skin heads…

It isn’t just Hillary. Through my whole life, I have been relentlessly off the mark. Here’s an example. During the 20+ years I was teaching writing at community colleges, many theories about the teaching and learning of writing were gaining traction. In the last decade, one was a particularly formulaic five paragraph essay taught in basic writing classes. It was not the five paragraph essay as I’d learned it in high school, but something far more rote. Begin the essay with a quotation to get the reader’s attention; cover some basic information in 3 sentences following the attention grabber (which you purloin from BrainyQuotes); write your thesis statement.

Students who learned this, universally believed that, to find a thesis statement, all you had to do was look at the last sentence in the first pagagraph. Wrong.

Since I taught writing at a slightly higher level than this five paragraph essay (next class and at the university), I got to read a lot of these. They were horrible, especially when the writer was writing about something he or she had read and could actually glean a relevant quote from their reading. OK, well, it was a start, but I didn’t think it was the best start because there’s more to writing than that formula. I also knew that — at the university level — this patent structure was scorned.

Time marched on and a job opened up at a community college. I got an interview. Part of the interview was my boss pretending to be a student coming to me for help revising the paper. I did my best. Told her to find a relevant quotation from her reading rather than Googling “quotes about XYZ”. I suggested some other things that were absolutely counter to the formula.

The next part of the interview was a teaching demo. I had a PowerPoint (because most of my colleagues were still struggling with it and it was a requirement of the job to have that kind of techxpertise). The topic of the lecture was supposed to be “the four sentence types.” I did my lecture and that was the end of the interview.

I had no idea that I had stepped firmly on the feet — not just the toes —  of many of the people on the committee.

Turned out it was my BOSS who had come up with the formula for THAT particular formulaic five paragraph essay, something that had been discussed in numerous conferences over a period of a few years. She was the one who came up with the idea that students could Google salient quotations to hook the reader. She’d contributed to a textbook and so on and so forth. The four sentence types? Well, in that world it was far more important that students memorize the four sentence types and how to construct them than it is that they learn to use language to say something.

Form over substance. That’s how I saw it. I didn’t get the job. Obviously. BUT they continued to give me as many classes as they could every semester because what I did in the classroom worked.

Was I right? Were THEY right? I’d say both, but IF you’re not going with the tide, you are against the tide or carried along in spite of yourself. I was carried along and grateful to be because I needed to earn a living, but when the water level dropped, I was left on the bank.

Thank God.



Expiring Minds WANT to KNOW

“I just want the facts, ma’am.” (Dragnet)

“Quit yer’ crying. Tell me what what happened.” (My mom)

There was a time when facts mattered a whole lot. In my last few years of teaching, my students couldn’t even identify facts in a simple business case. For anyone who might not have had the great privilege of taking a class in basic business communication, here’s a standard, little, beginner-level case.

Lamont goes to the electronics store and buys a Toshiba stereo on sale. It’s a huge markdown and Lamont is very happy. He’s SO happy he doesn’t see the numerous signs that say,

ALL Sales on clearance items are FINAL.’

Lamont gets home, hooks up the stereo, engages the Bluetooth with his iPhone, and proceeds to enjoy all kinds of random music and advertising on Youtube. Lamont is very happy with his purchase until, two months later, the stereo just stops working. He sends an email to the store with a scan of the receipt and a photo of the stereo. He is outraged and wants his money back.

You work in customer service and when you arrive at work on Monday morning, Lamont’s email is the first thing you see. Your hands are tied. You agree that two months isn’t very long to have a stereo, but the store’s policy in this regard is very clear and very strict. It wouldn’t be a clearance sale if stuff could come back into stock. Write the message to Lamont.

I taught them how to approach a case like this and, for the first 12 or so years I taught this course, students mostly got the problem right. They refused the request and offered a discount on a future purchase. They might not have constructed the message correctly (as a bad news message, the bad news should appear toward the end after goodwill and an explanation of store policy) but they got the right answer. They could find the facts, the salient fact being, “You bought the thing on clearance. Signs saying ‘All Sales Final’ were everywhere.”

The last five or so years of my career, many of my students could not distinguish important (and instructive to them in their role as a customer service guy) facts from extraneous information. Some even asked me I how KNEW the facts were FACTS and not opinions. And they argued. I despaired over some of them being able to keep one of the fascinating jobs at Enterprise Rent-a-Car for which they were paying so much money for training. The students in the College of Business were among the best and brightest at the university; to get into the program, they had to have a GPA of 3.0. For teaching? A simple C sufficed. Philosophy had no GPA requirement at all.

And NOW?

Every day I see disputes over facts. We should not dispute facts; we should dispute opinions. Facts, by definition, are indisputable. They are reality, non-negotiable, absolute. We can respond to facts differently, but that does not change the facts. For example. I am 5’1″. I can’t change that because I ‘want’ to or don’t ‘believe’ in it. I need a step stool. My desires can’t alter that. Another fact, my hip is worn out. I currently am happily cruising around on the effects of a cortisone shot, but that has NOT reversed the existing wear on my hip NOR will it prevent further damage. It just makes me FEEL better.

What are NOT facts? Opinions and beliefs. Of those two, only opinions can be disputed with evidence.

Believers do not care at all about facts. “Truth” for them is a matter of how they “feel” about something and the selective sorting of “evidence” to support what they have already decided to be true.

The point of this is when you open your Facebook page and you see some rant, look to see if the rant is based on the objective evalulation of facts or someone’s set of beliefs. Beliefs justify anything the believer wants to justify, whether it’s trophy hunting, teachers should carry weapons into the classroom, anyone who hates Trump is a liberal (I’m not a liberal), MAGA!, etc. ad nauseum.

My tack in this situation is, “If beliefs, then move on.” Why?

“I believe (whatever),” is a fact and there’s no disputing facts. 😀


Drawing Lines — Morning Confession

Last night I had the idea of writing a book about the great times I had teaching. The title would be, “When I was the Shit*: Great Times in the Classroom.” I thought of some of the stories, too, and it seemed like kind of a good idea, but I think, mostly, I really like the title.

And then I thought, “What about all those times you internally (or actually) disparaged people who wrote/write memoirs? What about all the times you shrugged off suggestions from friends to ‘Write what you know’?” And I thought, “Yeah, I should’a known as soon as I thought unkind thoughts about people who write memoirs that I’d be next.”

It’s a constant with me. As soon as I reject something or disparage something, I will be doing it next. “What do you know, anyway?” says God, “Muahahaha.” Like the daily prompt which, when I started writing a blog on WordPress, I thought was for losers.

Shut up.

A great title is not enough for a book, though — Oh, BTW, I also disparage people who have a title before they have a story. This needs to be said openly so that I can further cleanse my soul in this morning confession. I wish coffee stayed hot longer… Oh, what? A thermo-mug? No I disparage them, too.


*Lest you think I’m being vulgar, over the years several students said, “Professor Kennedy, you’re the shit.” Usually this was when they got an A, enjoyed class, got cut a break they didn’t expect, or I did something unexpectedly cool. It was frequently followed by a fist pound and/or secret handshake. You might’ve had to have been there.


Honking My Own Horn

For the first few months after I left teaching, my brain was busy trying to make sense out of a 30+ year career that had ended. I wrote about it (big surprise), a small text dump of philosophy and experiences. A blog reader here on WP suggested I post on Medium. I found myself part of a “magazine” — The Synapse — dedicated to teaching.

One of my pieces, “Student Centered vs. Teacher Center Learning” has been read by thousands of people, mostly young teachers. They’re highlighting passages, clapping for the content, following me. It makes me so so happy to have said something useful — after all — and helpful, for the ones just walking into the classroom now as teachers.

Another thing that’s happened related to teaching since I left, the Youtube videos I posted for my students (and never took down) are helping students today. Once in a while I get a comment thanking me. “That was the clearest explanation of the thesis statement ever. Thank you Mrs. Kennedy.”

I don’t think of myself as a teacher any more. I’ve also realized it was a way to make a living and I enjoyed it, mostly. It was NOT the grand “vocation” I often believed it to be back in the day. It seems to have been a long, long time ago that I was teaching, though it was only 3 years. But when I learn that something I’ve written has helped a young teacher or a kid in an English class, I feel warm inside.


Teaching — I Wish I Could Turn Back Time

Funny, after I saw today’s prompt, the word “educate,” I began to feel kind of sick. I (of course) flashed back to 38 years in the classroom and saw, again, how much I don’t want to go back there.

I read an article today by a woman who is teaching university geology. It ends with the same panacea we have all offered ourselves (usually successfully) “If I reach one student…”

By the time I left teaching, 2014, it was not the same profession I entered in the 70s. Students were different. They expected nothing from school. It was something they had to endure before they could enter “real life” (which they would be great at because their parents had always told them there was nothing they could not do). The teacher had gone from being a person who was there to help them learn to someone (a comparatively stupid someone who could be cowed by helicopter parents) in conspiracy against them. I can only imagine how it is in giant lecture classes where a teacher can’t get the students actively doing something for the 50 minutes or so. But the problems with teaching were not just students who weren’t prepared, not even those who were physically aggressive, or the parents who were demanding and nasty — administration was yet one more egregious layer on what had become a nightmare.

One of the last (good) classes I taught was a writing class. It was semi-remedial at a community college. Students got college credit for it but it was not a transfer-level class. We met twice a week for four hours. Writing is not something you can teach top down; it’s not an information based subject. It’s a subject students have to practice to learn. My many, many, many, many years of teaching writing at this level had shown me that students at that point needed to learn to write in a very basic way; sentence to paragraph, paragraph to essay. Fine. I didn’t mind teaching that. Tangled up with that were words. Good. I like words.

That particular class was a hodgepodge of nationalities, ages, backgrounds. The oldest student was in her mid-fifties; her native language Spanish; she had a Masters Degree from a university in Mexico City — typical community college group. I decided the best way to approach them was to regard the four hours as a writing lab. I introduced, I lectured, they tried, they revised, I helped, they revised, they went home and finished and the next day we met they handed me a finished essay. 98% of the work was done in class. Why?

Anyone who is in that level is afraid to write for one reason or another — they’ve tried and failed. They have a learning disability. English is not their first language. Having the teacher there during MOST of the work was a huge help to them morally and actually. And they read each others work as they went along.

I left them to themselves to sort out their use of the 4 hours. Some had to go pick up a kid or two at day care and take them to grandma’s in the middle. No problem for me. Some were restless thinkers who got up and left and came back. Some needed a cigarette. Some liked to talk things over with a classmate. My rule was no phones — except for the moms. The class worked great, but it looked chaotic.

I was observed by the dean. She said she’d never seen such a poorly managed classroom in her life.

I sat back in my chair and listened to her litany of criticisms. I didn’t even think she was a bitch. I just thought she was clueless.

For some reason I decided to fight back. I asked her, “Have you ever taught writing? Have you ever taught a class that people did not want to take? Have you ever taught a four hour class?” No, no, no. I told the dean the whys and wherefores of the class and why I had managed it as I had. I explained the difference between what she taught — lecture classes in dental hygiene — and what I taught. I told her about the individual students who’d come in with mechanical problems related to their lives (daycare, etc.), those who had learning disabilities, those for whom English was FAR from a first language, the one who had serious PTSD. I said to her, “These are people, individuals, and some how I have to take them from where they entered my classroom in January to a place where they can join more mainstream students and succeed. Learning to write is nothing but a tool for doing that.”

I, on the other hand, had seen incredible progress with those students. They were going into the next class — Freshman Comp — MORE than ready. They could bang out the ever necessary 5 paragraph essay like nobody’s business. They understood the perils of the thesaurus. They eschewed cliches. They knew how to cite sources and integrate quotations. They understood the rhetorical terms like “compare/contrast,” “descriptive,” “first person,” “thesis statement,” “argument,” “persuasion.” And they had learned how to go to college — some of them entering that classroom had NO idea. The chaos the dean observed at the END of the semester was NOTHING compared to the chaos at the beginning.

She ended up giving me a good eval, a fantastic eval, actually.

But…when I was to meet with the dean of the college over my evals, the guy forgot our appointment at 5 pm. I was left in a dark little room waiting for an hour and a half after I’d already taught six classes, beginning at 7 am. The secretary called him and then asked if I’d like him to come down or if I’d like to come back. Since getting there was a 50 mile drive from my house and 30 miles from everywhere else I ever was, I said I’d wait.

I was angry. I held inside more than 30 years of anger at all the bullshit a lecturer must go through to work in higher education. I don’t want to enumerate the bullshit. You can probably extrapolate from these two examples.

So he arrived. He met with me for 10 minutes. Said I was qualified to come back and work for them again (ever mind that I had already worked for that college for 10 years — and had taken a hiatus of five while I taught at geographically more convenient colleges).

So the word “educate” for me, this morning, was like a waving flag in front of the face of a bull. (BTW, it doesn’t have to be red; red just plays better for the crowd.)

Teaching is a joke. Teachers are tools. The pay is awful. The lack of respect is worse. The last 20 years of government interference and the emphasis on testing has caused serious harm. The fact that students believe (and maybe they’re right) they can learn more from Google than from a teacher is awful. I was conned over and over by the “I’ve learned more from you than anyone in my life” “This is the only good class I’ve taken at this college” — if I’d been paying attention I would have thought, “Wait, that’s just ONE kid.”

But the ultimate con, “If you reach one student, you’ve succeeded” is tattooed on the inside of every teachers’ eyelids. Mine too.

I wish I had my life back. I’d have taken that job with Boojum Adventures and led guided horseback tours of Mongolia instead. Yeah. I was offered that back in 1985. 😦



WARNING!!!! Keep them AWAY from the Thesaurus or they Will Try to Mess With You

“What’s the difference, teacher?”

“Well, some animals can’t ‘amble’. A snake, for instance, or an ant. It’s a kind of walking that’s slow and loose and hasn’t got any destination, necessarily. Some animals often amble — like a giraffe, a horse, a cow. A sheep could, but probably doesn’t.”

“Why snake can’t amble?”

“C’mon Rahim, that’s just silly. You can figure that out.”

“Rahim, a snake can’t walk,” whispers helpful Korean girl.

“Oh, right. My bad! But ant can walk. Why can’t ant amble?”

“It’s not their nature. They have these little short legs, they move very fast all the time and they always have a reason to go somewhere.”

“That’s true, teacher. Can you amble?”



Allegory of the Cave

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.

Back in the Goodle Days of Teaching Freshman Comp

As many people know, I was once an English teacher. I taught composition, critical thinking and business communication. Once in a GREAT WHILE (like twice in two decades) I was “allowed” to teach summer literature. I spent 35 years of my life reading student papers. What’s more (and possibly strange) I liked it. I liked teaching post-adolescents and I never got tired of it. Everything I ended up hating about “teaching” really had little to do with teaching or students.

There is a thing about college freshmen and sophomores, it’s a good thing, but it’s also challenging, funny and annoying, they think they’re VERY VERY VERY smart and that they created the world and everything in it when they hit 18. I thought this, too, at that time of my life, so I have and always have had total sympathy with the hubris of youth. Now I know two things about it 1) their frontal lobes are not completely grown, 2) if we didn’t feel that way as young people the world would never change.

They wrote papers and they confused words. They confused words because they wanted to use big words. They had a few things going on in their minds. 1) they wanted to use big words because they were smart people and smart people use big words, 2) they wanted to impress their English teacher and everyone KNOWS English teachers are impressed by big words, and, 3) you get good grades by impressing your teacher. The advent of “spell check” made this problem even more interesting. :p

I think “plethora” is probably the favorite big word of college freshmen to use in their English essays. I’ve read that word almost exclusively on freshman English papers. One student even said, “Did you like how I used ‘plethora’?”

They also liked to get on their soapboxes. In order that they learn to be logical in presenting their arguments, they were required to write a PERSUASIVE PAPER on a controversial topic. I made rules. They could not write about legalizing pot, capital punishment or abortion. “Why, professor?”

“Well, here’s the deal. I don’t want to read a bunch of papers about legalizing pot, capital punishment or abortion. You gotta’ see this from my side. You’re going to write ONE paper. I’m going to take home 30 papers from each of my 3 freshmen comp classes. I don’t want to read 90 papers on abortion, would you?”


“All right then. Come up with something YOU really care about.”

“I care about that.”

“Find something else.” If a student were too invested in one of those three topics I was pretty sure they already had a paper and works cited page, probably from high school. There was also the reality that there are  9 million freshman papers available for sale on those three topics… I hated dealing with plagiarism.

If you have never sat down to a stack of freshman level persuasive papers, you have not lived (huh?). 🙂 Usually they were pretty OK. Occasionally they were abysmal, often they were cliché, sometimes they were inspiring. There was always at least one paper that took it upon itself to defend Freedom and the American Way. Almost always that paper told me that it was my right to peruse happiness.