I shudder to think where I’d be without a certain handful of teachers—Charlie, Nick, Blanche, Mr. Achtermeier, Mrs. Pempek—like old dogs I conjure back to life with a name. It’s true, hardly a day goes by I don’t think of some teacher or another, yet I can’t recall with confidence a single thing that even my best instructors taught me, except, perhaps, how to be in the world.
That, at least for this student, is the greatest service they performed, the most affecting teachers living as models for a kind of process—the process of being an artist, or a scholar, or simply a good citizen of the world—that strange process of trying to become oneself, for which there really is no model, surprise, surprise. Still, the most gifted teachers seemed devoted to some passion, their teaching a natural extension of this, their classroom a means of sharing, of learning, of fueling an enthusiasm, of keeping some flame alive as they paid the bills.
The distinction was never lost on us: the most engaged instructors might want to teach, but they needed to do their art or science or philosophy. They stood like sources of light, these professors, nothing murky or stuffy about their classrooms, we students included in some ongoing voyage, our teacher anxious to bring us along, restless to give away all that she sometimes didn’t even know she had, each hour an adventure, a wild sense of generosity. How could one not wish to somehow emulate such a life?
On my best days, I find no way to separate my life as a teacher from my life as a writer from my life as a student. As I often remind my students—and myself—I never want to say a single thing in our class that I can’t apply to myself and my own work. I preach honesty and clarity and compassion in their writing, because I struggle to find such clarity in my own work.
And when I lose my way, as I often do, it’s back to those original stars, the stars to whom I still attach this little wagon of mine. Charlie, Nick, Mrs. Pempek—my mentors, my permission-givers—teachers who admonished me to be honest, to keep working, to care about things, to care and keep caring. “A man,” wrote Emerson, “is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.”
In order to teach such a thing, I believe one must keep learning it.
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