My career as an English teacher began where I suppose these things begin for many of us in the profession: in graduate school.
While pursuing my PhD at The University of Texas at Austin I was offered a position as an A.I., teaching classes of freshman rhetoric and composition. It was very much learn-as-you-go teaching.
After my year as a PhD candidate I took a position at a local school. During my fifteen years there my “learn-how-to-teach-as-you-teach” experiences at U.T. served me well. I learned that I am teaching all the time, even if I’m just standing in the cafeteria lunch line. I learned that enthusiasm and confidence (in me and in my students) are almost indefinably important. I learned that the art of teaching is a combination of melodramatic playacting and being able to momentarily inhabit the minds (and souls) of the young – momentarily because the young change so quickly. I learned that to teach is to possess the patience of Buddha under the Bodhi Tree, and that to teach is an act of love. And I learned that having a pocketful of corny jokes is almost always helpful.
I came to believe that every student can experience the greatness of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare. I also believe every student can become a better writer: because writing is hard work and everyone, with the possible exception of a few natural
geniuses, can learn how to work hard.
On the surface my eleven years at another school may appear starkly different from my time at my first school. At the latter, I taught my first ten years in classrooms without air conditioning and was “taken to school” by 7th graders in pickup basketball. I watched kids from Houston’s inner city become lawyers, teachers, members of the armed forces (they’re the students I’m the proudest of), and holders of a complete PhD, not just one year of it. At the second school, students may have been drawn from affluent families -- children “rich in hope,” as Shakespeare puts it – but the results were equally impressive. (And I’m proudest of those students who chose to serve their country.) The two schools were much more alike than different, because both schools exist to educate the young and make their communities a better place. For me they are two currents in the same river.
One day in a Senior English college preparatory class, we “did” one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. We took the poem slowly, word by word, not treating the poem as a puzzle to be solved but as a human experience to be experienced. At the end of the session there was a silence of exhaustion.
As the class broke up, Samantha, who had spent the last two months in the front row saying little other than how tough my class was, remained in her seat, motionless, her hands in her lap. She continued to stare at the poem on her desk. Then under her breath, in a voice illuminated with a kind of sublime astonishment and so soft I almost didn’t hear it, Samantha said:
“This is the most beautiful thing I have ever read.”
I caught Samantha’s eye. I nodded in agreement, as if to say, Isn’t it?
I have nodded in agreement like this to Nathan and to Maria, to Michelle and Lauren, to Liam, Ben, Laura, Kika, Jose, Marco, Cathy, Naomi, Sarah: to many students. Such moments as these – when one is privileged to share another person’s discovery of beauty – to me explain why I have taught for so many years, and why I wish to continue to teach.
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