Sunday, January 6, 2013

Teachers: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (plus the Sexy!), Part 3

(This is the third installment of a three-part post; read part 1 here and part 2 here.)

The Sexy, Part A [that's right, a part divided into further parts . . . ]

I confess that the writing of this segment of my three-part post on teachers has been a bit of a struggle. Like all of you, I'm aware that we're not supposed to mention teachers and love, or teachers and sex, in the same sentence—not supposed to do so outside the context of porn, that is. (Google "sexy teacher," and see what comes up.) Which goes to show how deeply conflicted we are as a society, not only about teachers as human beings, but also about human beings (including teachers and adolescents) as sexual beings. All I'll say here, as a preface to my story about the "sexy" teacher in my life, is that there is a rich history and philosophy going back to ancient Greece concerning the role of Eros in teaching. Eros as a concept (derived form the god of the same name) is much more broad and powerful than sex. It is conceived (by Plato, for instance) as a primal force and motivator, which incorporates but is not reducible to love, desire, passion. Its role as a spur to learning has been recognized in both ancient and modern educational philosophy, but it remains unacknowledged and controversial in our culture. And yet . . .

There he was on the first day of class, the epitome of English-teacher cool, in black shirt and tight pants, book in hand, leaning back in his chair with one knee bent, foot against the edge of the desk. A cynosure. I hovered by the entrance of the classroom affecting an attitude of bored indifference, but I was secretly excited. Mr. S's reputation, and that of the unusual course he'd designed, preceded him. Pretending not to notice him, I picked up a piece of chalk and wrote in a corner of the blackboard, "Make the rich pay!" Just as I finished writing, Mr. S stood up. With a flick of his longish, dirty-blond hair, he surveyed the space and the kids occupying it. He glanced briefly at what I'd written on the board and reached for the blackboard eraser; as I took my seat at the back of the class, he shot me a ghost of a smirk that seemed to say "really?" then put the eraser down, leaving the Marxist-Leninist party slogan on the board. "This course is World Literature in Translation," he said in a voice that silenced the room. "I'd like to start by reading a poem by Sappho."

The material in the course was rich and eccentric by today's standards. We began with the Classics: Aristotle's Poetics; plays by Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles; poetry by Sappho, Horace and Catullus; excerpts from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Then we jumped to pre-modern and modern lit (I don't remember studying anything in between), reading short stories by De Maupassant, Chekov, Kafka; plays by Ibsen, and Jean Anouilh; essays by Camus and Simone de Beauvoir.

Mr. S expected us to read these texts carefully and write serious responses in the form of essays or reviews; but the selections also served as conduits to some of the most exciting discussions I'd ever had in a classroom setting—discussions about philosophy, psychology, art, feminism, politics. Mr. S moderated these discussions expertly, encouraging open, flexible discussion amongst the students, but he was also willing to express his own opinion as the need arose. He almost never lost his cool, which is probably why I recall one occasion early in the school year when he did. I can't remember the literary context, but we were talking about about war, specifically the Vietnam war. A boy commented that "if the US had won the war, we wouldn't have had to deal with the problem of 'boat people' in North America. Mr S said, "The problem of the boat people. Hmm. Are we all a 'problem' then? Aren't we  all immigrants in this country?" "No, sir," the boy said. "Oh, I see," Mr S said." So way back before the English and French arrived, there were the native peoples—and the Johnsons. Just your family skating around on the glaciers with the Inuit, right?" "No," the boy said.

An awkward silence followed this exchange, but I remember being secretly thrilled. For the first time in my life, I'd witnessed a teacher challenging the unthinking, petty racism that I saw and heard daily in high school. My half-Jewish, WASP-resenting, self-hating white soul was stirred. I was in love.

Next: The Sexy, Part B

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