The Teachers of my Life
Hey, out there.
I’ve returned to Beaufort after my long tour for The Death of Santini and the town has never seemed more welcoming or restful to me. Though I feel hollowed out and exhausted by the whirlwind nature of an American book tour, I’m smart enough to know that it’s still a grand way for any writer to connect to those readers he has picked up along the way. If any writer in this country has collected as fine and passionate a group of readers as I have, they’re fortunate and lucky beyond anyone’s imagination. It remains a shock to me that I’ve had a successful writing career. Not someone like me; Lord, there were too many forces working against me, too many dark currents pushing against me, but it somehow worked. Though I wish I’d written a lot more, been bolder with my talent, more forgiving of my weaknesses, I’ve managed to draw a
magic audience into my circle. They come to my signings to tell me stories, their stories. The ones that have hurt them and made their nights long and their lives harder.
Citadel graduates show up everywhere, and, of course, I took off on this tour in October, forgetting my Citadel ring on the untidy desk where I left it. “Where’s your ring?” The question always comes. My explanation always sounds hollow, but they bring their wives, children and grandchildren to meet me. The Marines and their families show up and military brats by the score. Teachers come by the dozens from Minneapolis to Miami.
Ah, yes, the teachers of America. When I meet them I always say, “God’s work, but not God’s pay.” I enrolled myself in their ranks when I wrote my book The Water is Wide, and they have never issued me my walking papers.
“Why do we hate our teachers in this country?” I ask them, and not one of them disagrees with me from Santa Fe to Charleston, from New Orleans to Philadelphia.
“I don’t know why. But I agree with you,” the teachers say in an almost unanimous voice.
The teachers of my life saved my life and sent me out prepared for whatever life I was meant to lead. Like everyone else, I had some bad ones and mediocre ones, but I never had one that I thought was holding me back because of idleness or thoughtlessness. They spent their lives with the likes of me and I felt safe during the time they spent with me. The best of them made me want to be just like them. I wanted young kids to look at me the way I looked at the teachers who loved me. Loving them was not difficult for a boy like me. They lit a path for me and one that I followed with joy.
Teaching is an art form, pure and simple. I’ll trust a teacher over a bureaucrat every single time – a teacher over an administrator. Education by test scores seems like the worst thing that’s ever happened to American education, by far. I met ten high school English teachers on my trip whom I’d have loved to have teach me. To my surprise, my novel The Lords of Discipline is taught in more high school English classes than any of my others. I thought the language of the barracks and the nasty racism of the Corps would prevent that book from ever being taught in an American classroom. I met a whole cadre of teachers in Kansas City, Missouri who had taught The Lords of Discipline for years. When I asked the head of the Department at a large public high school how his teachers navigate through parents and school boards offended by the book, he told me it had been a challenge, indeed. His teachers let their students make the case with the school board, and the passion of those students had carried the day each time the subject had come up. I fell in love with the English teachers of Kansas City and that is a bond that’ll never be broken.
Yet the unhappiness of teachers was a constant theme and they suffer from the lack of respect and honor due them for their choice to spend their lives teaching the children that are sent to them. The testing of American children all began with well-meaningness and high-mindedness. “No Child Left Behind” is a phrase of enormous beauty, yet it has caused more suffering among teachers than the pitiful wages we pay them. Whether it’s a Republican or Democratic administration doesn’t seem to make a scintilla of difference. The theories that are born in Washington D.C. and in the Ivy League are ascendant throughout the land, and as far as I can tell and as well as I can listen, they’ve had a chilling effect on most of the classrooms in our land. A nation of unhappy teachers makes for a sadder and more endangered America.
Before my beloved English teacher Gene Norris died, he was given a lifetime achievement award by the South Carolina Council of the Teachers of English. The year before, Gene had received the first Margaret Roberts Award given by the Thomas Wolfe Society to honor the extraordinary woman who had taught high school English to the great novelist. It was a good year for Gene, even though he was suffering greatly from the leukemia that would kill him. We drove to Greenville together on one of our last road trips. The chemo had made Gene grouchy and dyspeptic when he said to me, “I don’t want you to go on and on about me. The way you usually do. You always exaggerate my influence on you. I’m so tired of you gilding the lily. I told them I don’t want this award and I certainly don’t deserve it.”
“Then why am I wasting my valuable time driving you to Greenville?” I asked.
“Because it’s good for teachers, Carpetbagger. It’s good for all teachers – everywhere. They don’t get much,” he said, and he was grinning. “But I’m going to walk out of there if you do your usual bullshit about me.”
“I’ll say anything I want. I’m an American. I’ve got rights.”
Gene was magnificent when he received the award and I was not the only one who saw him cry that day. Afterwards, we were together when two bright and hilarious teachers stood up later in the program.
The first said, “No child left behind.”
“Every child left behind,” the second said.
“No school left behind,” the first said.
“Every school left behind,” the second said.
“No teacher left behind?” asked the first.
“Every damn teacher left behind.”
Gene and I joined in the standing ovation for these two singular women. On the way home, Gene was reflective and still deeply moved by the ceremony.
“I’ve had an amazing life, Pat. I wouldn’t change a thing. Except this: They used to trust teachers with the kids they sent us. It’s all different now and oh so wrong.”
So the teachers came to my signings as they always do. Some were veterans of the inner city schools and their voices filled up with urgency and despair. Some were in danger of being fired because of the low test scores of the students at their schools. When I asked a white woman in Philadelphia if she ever thought about transferring to a suburban school, she bristled at me. “Why I would I do that? My kids need me. I’m in love with them. Who’d fight for them if it weren’t for teachers like me?”
Teaching remains a heroic act to me and teachers live a necessary and all-important life. We are killing their spirit with unnecessary pressure and expectations that seem forced and destructive to me. Long ago I was one of them. I still regret I was forced to leave them. My entire body of work is because of men and women like them.
₪ ₪ ₪
The word “blog” is the ugliest word in the English language to me. But I’ve written in journals in a haphazard fashion since I was a young writer. The journal I keep now is the material that makes up my own “blog” – though I’ve no idea what a blog is supposed to do or what it is supposed to consist of. Why it appeals to anyone is mysterious to me. But I use it as a way to sneak back into my own writing without being noticed. A new novel awaits my arrival, prepares for my careful inspection. Yet a novel is always a long dream that lives in me for years before I know where to go to hunt it out. When I found myself in new cities or strange airports on this trip, I could feel it stirring around on the outer rings of consciousness. I could feel it begin to layer itself. Though it pointed to no real beginnings or endings, I believe I’ve got two long novels and three shorts ones still in me. But my health has to cooperate and I need to pay more attention to my health. It is not long life I wish for – it is to complete what I have to say about the world I found around me from boyhood to old age. Because I’ve gotten older, I worry that there will be a steep decline in my talent, but promise not to let the same thing happen to my passion for writing.
My career still strikes me as miraculous. That a boy raised on Marine bases in the South, taught by Roman Catholic nuns in backwater southern towns who loathed Catholics, and completed with an immersion into The Citadel – the whole story sounds fabricated, impossible even to me. Maybe especially to me.
Throughout my career I’ve lived in constant fear that I wouldn’t be good enough, that I’d have nothing to say, that I’d be laughed at, humiliated – and I’m old enough to know that fear will follow me to the very last word I’ll ever write.
As for now, I feel the first itch of the novel I’m supposed to write – the grain of sand that irritates the soft tissues of the oyster. The beginning of the world as I don’t quite know it. But I trust I’ll begin to know it soon.