Authors: Mark Edmundson
Table of Contents
TO MY MOTHER AND BROTHER
AND TO THE MEMORY OF MY FATHER
Acclaim for MARK EDMUNDSON’s
“A brilliant memoir, smart, vividly dramatic, and wry.”
“One of the best traits of
is the author’s honesty. . . . By the book’s end, it’s a good bet a reader might think, ‘Hey, I wouldn’t mind taking a class from that guy.’ That’s about the highest praise a teacher can get.”
San Jose Mercury News
“Chockablock with wit, detail, and surprisingly clear-eyed memory. . . . Powerful.”
“Rich with metaphoric prose and inlaid with lovely story-telling. . . . Brings to mind Robert Coles’s memorable writing about Perry Miller.”
The Washington Post
“An affectionate but unsentimental homage. . . . We are taken on a compelling journey down the corridor of that most perilous and fateful of institutions—the American high school. A terrific book.”
—Billy Collins, Poet Laureate and author of
Sailing Alone Around the Room
“Masterfully demonstrates the power of one man’s belief in the power of ideas to change lives.”
The Charlotte Observer
“We suspect it happens every day, but not often enough. . . . A teacher makes a difference. Finally, here is the testimonial we are looking for. . . . Hurrah to Mr. Lears and thanks to Mark Edmundson for validating the dream.”
“A poignant memoir, a self-analysis that shares revelations and insights that widely apply to those gawky teenage years, and the liberation that comes from intellectual awakening.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“A touching tribute. . . . A humorous, vivid recollection of friends, teammates, and antagonists who accompanied [Edmundson] through high school in the ’60s. . . . Sure to resonate deeply with readers.”
“A worthwhile read. . . .
is written in two voices: Edmundson as a high school student and as an accomplished academic. . . . [He] weaves these two conversations into a thoughtful and engaging memoir.”
Rocky Mountain News
A PHILOSOPHER COMES TO TOWN
I see Franklin Lears now, through the long prism of time past, shambling into the Medford High School building on the day before classes begin. He climbs the sadly worn steps, enters the building, and begins walking down what’s come to be called the New Corridor, a passage that connects the two wings of the high school that are still intact. A fire has destroyed the school’s central classrooms and offices, so this hallway, the one down which Lears is walking, cuts its way through a nest of burned timber and blackened, crumbled brick. He walks with back bent, dressed in a tropical suit, two sizes baggy, lugging a briefcase loaded down with a small library of books that, though he will probably have no occasion to read them in the next few hours, provide a sort of companionship for him. Except for his copious buzzing thoughts, except for the books, Lears is now, as he almost always is, alone.
But he is also, as I see him, in a state of high expectancy. He has stored his energies all through the summer and he is ready to begin. Students arrive tomorrow. Lears has drawn up the plan for what will be the gemstone of his course offerings for the 1969–1970 school year: his class in philosophy, designed for a select group of seniors. Together with these bright if perhaps slightly underprepared youngsters (Medford—pronounced Me’ford by the majority of its inhabitants—Massachusetts is a working-class city, not renowned for its cultural life; it’s not Concord, home of Emerson, home of Thoreau; it’s surely not Cambridge), he will ponder the eternal questions: beauty, truth, free will, fate, reality, and appearance.
The class will start out reading
The Story of Philosophy,
by Will Durant, then go on to Plato’s
some Aristotle, Spinoza (a particular favorite of Lears’), maybe a little bit of Kant, then maybe on to Bertrand Russell’s effort to clear everything up with an injection of clean, scientific logic. Lears has just graduated from Harvard; all of his intellectual aspirations are intact.
Strolling through the building the day before classes started, Lears saw desks and blackboards, large windows that slid up and open with a cheery metallic gurgle, supply closets stocked full of papers and books and all the other paraphernalia of education. He smelled the dusty smell of chalk, taken fresh from its carton and broken apart so that it won’t make the screaming sound that shoots students up from their desks in a genuine agitation that morphs quickly into Looney Tunes excess.
Encountering these things, Lears no doubt believed that he was in a real school, a place where people quested by their lights after the truth, its elaborations and its antitheses.
But Medford High, at least until Frank Lears came and did what he did, was not a school at all. It was a place where you learned to do—or were punished for failing in—a variety of exercises. The content of these exercises mattered not at all. What mattered was form—repetition and form. You filled in the blanks, conjugated, declined, diagrammed, defined, outlined, summarized, recapitulated, positioned, graphed. The subject was of no consequence: English, geometry, biology, history—all were the same. The process treated your mind as though it were a body capable of learning a number of simple choreographies, then repeating, repeating.
Our bodies themselves were well monitored. When the bell rang we were expected to rise and file into the corridor, stay in line, speak quietly if at all, and enter the next class, where we were ordered to sit down, sit quietly, feet beneath the desk; we were, all day long, presided over by teachers, a significant fraction of whom were going—at greater or lesser velocities, ending sometimes with a bang, sometimes with subdued, heart-emptying sobs—out of their minds. The place was a shabby Gothic cathedral consecrated to Order, and maybe it was not without its mercies. If you’d done what you should have at Medford High, the transition into a factory, into an office, into the marines would be something you’d barely notice; it would be painless, sheer grease.
But Medford High School students did not, at all times, do what they were supposed to. We knew little of the world, little, in general, of ourselves. But we did sense that we’d been tossed into a decrepit penal colony, and we fought back with whatever resources came to hand. When the teachers and administrators, the turnkeys and wardens, were vulnerable, we went at them with a fury. Those close to going off the deep end got a hearty push from us. It was a battleground that Franklin Lears was walking onto—us against them, and us against ourselves, against, that is, our own interest in learning something, on the off chance that Medford High had anything of value to teach.
It obviously took Lears a while to figure out what sort of rabbit hole he had fallen into and in what kind of Wonderland he’d be spending time. But eventually he pieced things together. And during the course of that year he became a great teacher, though of a singular kind. Free in himself, he tried to make us, his students, free as well. In my case, at least, he had some success, though the freedom wasn’t without costs.
He brought us the spirit of Socrates—the homely Athenian, who never accepted anything on faith, questioned all matters under the sun, took no crap, ever, and knew how to laugh. He turned us into Socratic questioners, strangers in our own lives, who stopped gulping down general opinion (
Socrates called it) or, nearly as bad, rejected all received ideas without pondering them. He taught us what thinking was, which is to say that—in the beginning, at least, when his ways were just taking hold—he made us miserable.
Lears was also a spirit of the sixties, though not of the predictable sort. The sixties turned up in some places, appeared to some people, decked in beads, bare-chested, with a swallowtail coat and an American flag top-hat, clanging finger cymbals and chanting the body electric, dispensing the sacrament of marijuana in tiny, bone-white J’s, “Truckin’ ” or “Sugar Magnolia” pouring in from nowhere and everywhere. To us, in the Medford High philosophy class 1969–1970, the sixties came in the guise of a diminutive guy who wore what looked to be his grandpa’s suits and shoes so formidable and square that they would certainly outlive us all.
When I encountered Franklin Lears, I was a high school thug. I was a football player, a brawler, who detested all things intellectual. The first time I saw this meager guy with his thick, swinging briefcase, I wanted to spit on the floor. He was absurd, a joke. If you had told me that in eight months I would have decided to live my life in a way that was akin to his, I would have told you that you were crazy; I would have spit, probably, at you. But that is exactly what took place: I went on to become an incessant reader, a writer, a university professor.
The French thinker Simone Weil said that evil, when you encounter it in life, is often infinitely wearisome—dull, obsessive, plodding, repetitious. But good is much different. When you meet up with goodness in day-to-day experience, it’s so novel and fresh that it’s often difficult to recognize for what it is. Frank Lears was a remarkably good man, though it took me some time to see it. Lears’ goodness was of a peculiar sort. He was always doing something for himself as well as for you. In the process of working his best deeds, he didn’t mind affronting what you might call his spiritual enemies. Lears’ goodness, like that of almost all great teachers, always had an edge to it.
Great teacher, good man: Frank Lears would surely blanch at this kind of grandiloquent talk. I see his eyebrows rising now, and his usually mournful face going into a benevolent, mildly exasperated grin.
I thought a great deal about Franklin Lears during the year or so after I left Medford High School. I was a student at the University of Massachusetts then, and deep into philosophy myself, along with rock music and high times and stopping the war. But slowly Lears’ direct influence—as well as the influence of rock and other such things—began to wear away. He was replaced in my imagination by other, ostensibly more accomplished, figures. It was only after thirty years, when I was well into the middle of life, that I began thinking about Lears again.
I had become a teacher myself by then, not in a high school (though from 1977 to 1980 I did a stint teaching at a hippie boarding school that self-destructed in a screaming psychedelic blast; Woodstock School, it was called), but at a university, Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia. I’d been to graduate school, to Yale no less, and had gone on to a dozen years of successful teaching. At least my course evaluations, my enrollments, and student comments indicated that I was a success. But gradually I became sure that things were going wrong. My students went on at fluent length in their evaluations, saying how enjoyable my courses had been, what an amiable and entertaining guide I was to the material at hand—Blake or Shakespeare or Whitman. But their papers, written with more technical skill than anything I could have mustered at nineteen or twenty, were empty; they had a void, anonymous feeling about them. No one seemed to be home. Their class comments were often two- or three-word interjections, unpromising seeds that I, always obliging, tried to raise into expansive blossoms before their classmates’ eyes. Virtually no one, from what I could tell, was changed by taking my classes.
But I had been changed by Frank Lears, no doubt about it. I had been in classes with some of the most renowned humanists of the day, and surely they had all had their impact. But I had only one teacher who really effected a major transformation, and that was Lears, a man of twenty-two or twenty-three, who had little prior experience as a teacher and who left teaching after a year, no doubt feeling less than ecstatic about what he found there.
So I needed to do all I could to think back over three decades and make contact with a long-forgotten island of my experience. I had been brutally, miserably unhappy in high school. But isn’t almost everyone? And those who are not—high school’s kings and queens and duchesses and dukes—often find all the rest of life a sad, outstretching desert, for rarely does their ascendancy last beyond graduation day. So in one sense it was no joy to go back. But I persisted, because here, if anywhere, might be the key to my quandary. How could you make of the reading of books—not holy books, not books dictated by the Lord God of Hosts or discovered, as the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith claimed his book to be, with the aid of a sojourning angel, but secular books—something that might turn a life around? And, more broadly, how do you approach students, how do you talk to them in a classroom and outside, so that your teaching actually has an impact?
The process of remembering is no easy one, of course. And that is often true not because there are too few memories (try focusing every day for a half-hour or so on some phase of your life that strikes you as dead and departed, and you’ll see) but because there are too many, and because they are not always of the anticipated sort. For even if I only thought of education, of what I’d learned that last year in high school, I had to admit that among my more prominent influences were a gang of football players and coaches. And I had to think of my father, now long dead, for a father is every young man’s primary teacher, like it or not. Franklin Lears and Mace Johnson, my football coach, both in their singular ways wrested me away from my father and all he meant to me. It was a freeing and a remarkably sad process, for I left my father, who greatly needed me, almost alone in the world. Over time, in other words, as I thought more and more about it, the story became more complicated, the morals less certain.
In writing a book like this, it is necessary to face one of the least appealing figures to have traversed the earth’s crust—that is, one’s high school self. Professors enter their trade for a number of reasons, but almost always they do so at least in part because they are drawn to authority; they seek standing, respect—even if they are at the same time suspicious of these things. To return to one’s high school self is to leave any pretense to perfection far behind, or at least it is for me. In graduate school, I had professors so august that it seemed that there probably never was a time when they had not read
The Faerie Queene
—perhaps they entered life with that, and most of the other classics, already under their belts. The image of myself that appears in these pages is nothing close to so magisterial. But it seemed worth dispensing with professorial pride and going back to depict an earlier, more refractory self. In doing so, I hope I might make some contact with others whose condition now is akin to what mine was before I met Frank Lears.
I kept on with my remembering and writing, uncomfortable as they sometimes were, and, to cut to the final frame, the process worked, or at least I believe it did. Remembering Frank Lears and the life in Medford that Lears made me so much want to leave behind, I came to understand what I wanted to do now, in the present, as a teacher. And though when I tell my students on the first day what we’ll be up to and how they’ll never say that they “enjoyed” this course, some of them head promptly for the exits, I learned how to do what I hoped for. Lears helped me change my ways and be something like the sort of teacher he was. He put me on the right course in life—not once, but twice—though neither time was it a simple and painless shift. Grateful as I am, I want to try to get some of Lears’ story into words to see if others might be able to make use of it as well.
Most students will not encounter a Frank Lears or anyone like him. They will never be exposed to a transforming teacher. Is it possible to be moved by such a person secondhand, to be inspired by someone who did his work thirty years ago? I hope so, and that hope is another reason I have written this book.
But I wonder if when a teacher like Lears comes along, he is generally recognizable for what he is. Surely it took
a long time to see it—and that was in 1969, a time that was ripe for novelty, when one expected constant renewal, or at least ceaseless change.
In America today we treasure a long-standing myth of the great teacher: call it the Mr. Chips–Robin Williams myth, if you like. The teacher of this myth is infinitely kind, infinitely benevolent; he loves his students first and last, almost more than he loves himself. He memorizes their names on the first day. He tells amusing, selfdeflating stories that make everyone feel at ease. He is a source of benevolent, socially sanctioned advice: be kind, be good, be true. If he challenges anything, it is orthodoxies that are already dead in the world at large and have reared their heads in one last corner. Most of all he adores—and is adored by—his students.