Wednesday, December 5, 2007
WRITTEN WORD 37 - Teaching
It was forty years after my time in study hall, and my time at White Pines, and now I had a problem. I wasn't a teacher. I'd never even considered the academic life. But I was just divorced again, and the money was all gone, and my writing again had stalled, and nothing was coming in. I had to do something. Anything to keep afloat.
I lived now in a bright and airy, recently purchased, heavily mortgaged, mountain-view house just outside the colorful Catskills village of Woodstock, New York. Woodstock, this eccentric place of writing and music and art – sort of like an ideal college town should be. And with the added advantage of having no college in it.
It's also a place with not many ways to make money – and so in my current situation, this lack of a college was also, for the first time, a disadvantage, since it meant one less source of jobs.
So I decided to journey north to a more raw place – the English department of a small community college – low, prefabricated buildings set in a stark and grand northern Catskills area that had once, way back, been marginal farm country. Later it had had a run as a somewhat prosperous summer resort place. That had ended too. And by now it was as impoverished and bleak as some of the New Hampshire landscapes of my youth.
Farmland fallow. Tourist places outdated, dying, deserted – like old New Hampshire.
The English Department chairperson at the Catskills community college looked like someone who had survived it all – tough, gray, ageless, wiry. She was so glad to see me, she said. And wasn't it awful what had happened?
I thought she was referring to the increasing poverty of these lovely but sad and desecrated upstate New York counties her college served (even, somehow, to my own sudden, dangerous poverty and indebtedness).
But it turned out she meant the low quality, everywhere, she said, of present-day young people.
We got my credentials out of the way quickly. I was qualified, it turned out, because recently, pursuing a midlife interest in theology, I had received a masters degree cleverly disguised by the theology department to look like a degree in education.
Then we got on to more immediate matters.
"Kids today are different," she said. "Nobody knows the basics."
She was talking about her specialty courses, English 101 and English 102, both of which entail much student writing. But her students just did not want to write, she said. In desperation she had even asked them to write about what interested them. They had done so, and she had to flunk some of them anyway, including a boy whose interest was, of all things, football.
She had to flunk them because, who cares about young people's self-serving, self-pitying memories?
Then she started talking in a foreign language: "Would you believe," she said, "that young people today don't know the difference between description and narrative?"
I knew the words “narrative” and “description” but had no idea what this woman thought the difference was supposed to be. I knew it could be fatal to writing if you tried to make such a distinction. I was aware, from my own writing, of how a narrative could be propelled by description, and of how a narrative without description would be generalized nonsense. I knew she was talking nonsense – as bad here in this little school as in the supposedly great university I had endured as an undergraduate. Awful, destructive nonsense. But I tried to look solemn. I actually raised an eyebrow. I shook my head in sadness.
"And do you know," she said, "that I hardly see an entering student who can tell the difference between a causal essay and a process essay?"
I put on a look of even deeper sorrow, and said, "This is terrible."
And I was pretty sure I had the job.
At this time I had just begun the Authentic Writing workshops with a weekly group meeting in Woodstock. And I was thinking a lot about my boarding school English teacher Joe Abbey and his love for literature, and the hatred for literature that I had found at Princeton.
And then it turned out that the actual setting of the job was as foreign to me as that mysterious stuff about causal and process essays. I was to teach an accelerated freshman college English course to 16- and 17-year-olds inside something called the Cairo-Durham (pronounced Cay-row-Durham) Central High School.
Three times a week, so early the class would be over by 8 a.m.
Not only had I never been a teacher before this, college or otherwise, I had never attended a public high school.
I went to look at the place. It was a dark, snaking, one-story brick building. It had almost no windows, although it was set high on a hill with what could have been a 360-degree panoramic view of fields and woods and mountains – a hill rising from a village made up of rustic rural bars, all of which had shamrocks on their signs.
These fields and hills and woods and mountains, though not the shamrock bars, so like New Hampshire 40 years back, before I had given up such countryside in favor of, until Woodstock, big cities and war zones.
When I was a teenager and in New Hampshire I had not always seen such landscape directly. I had looked out at southern New Hampshire from the protected grounds of that old-line, Anglophile all-boys boarding school. In the summers in northern New Hampshire I had looked out at it from the protected grounds of the formal summer mountain houses, especially the big house called White Pines, owned by "our kind of people."
Now here I was in the northern Catskills, so many years later, not looking out at such a landscape but actually in it.
I drove up to the college bookstore with my best friend Claude the dog, an intensely personable, low-to-the-ground, adolescent, black-and-white basset hound/terrier. Claude and I now lived alone in my big mountain-view house that the bank wanted back.
I drove up through the northern Catskills thinking of how deep in the past when I'd been in such countryside I'd been an adolescent and my life had seemed worthless, desperate – without hope – until – away from home – a remarkable English teacher saw what other teachers and my Connecticut family had missed – and books and writing saved my life – and the world opened for me.