IN PRAISE OF TEACHERS


 

BY MARK MEDOFF  1986
Mark Medoff, the playwright, won an OBIE Award for ''When You Comin Back, Red Ryder?'' and a Tony for ''Children of a Lesser God.'' 

THOUGH I AM IN MY 21ST year as a professor at New Mexico State University, I wonder if I've stopped thinking of myself as a teacher. Don't I lament to my wife Stephanie that the more productive I become as a writer, the less time I have for communicating whatever it is that has impelled students to try to learn from me?

This crisis of faith has me thinking in turn about my teachers, hoping two decades after I was last officially a student to learn from them once again. As I begin to recall some of them, I remember not their actual teaching of a subject but, startlingly, one thing - an idea, a moment, some words hurled forth, one seminal idea. 

GRAYVILLE, ILL., A small oil-boom town of the late 1930's, early 40's. My first-grade teacher, faceless and nameless today, in all likelihood deceased except as she lives in the minds of those who remember her. Clearly, I must have begun to learn from her to read and write, to add and subtract, thus beginning a lifetime of joy in language and misery in numbers. That's not my primary memory, though: She teaches me left from right. I am left-handed. Many first-grade teachers, she whispers into my 6-year-old ear, force left-handed children to become right-handed, so they can be like everybody else. She isn't going to do that to me. 

IN 1948, WE MOVE TO A small island because I have asthma (which I invent at the precise moment of my brother's birth).

This island is east of Miami, festooning upward in stucco and rococo glory out of a stretch of seashore and sand. It's called Miami Beach.

There, Mrs. Rosen awaits me, raven-haired and beautiful, reminiscent somehow of Esther in the Bible. Her husband shows up one day. It has never occurred to me she has a husband. I imagine her waiting for me to grow up to have her for my own. (After all, isn't my name in Hebrew Mordecai? Mordecai and Esther, together again in Miami Beach - ah, yes.) Her husband, she says, is going to teach us to draw a star. Teach us to draw a star? Everybody knows how to draw a star. Is that how we're going to decide who gets her - who can draw the best star?

But Mrs. Rosen's husband doesn't teach us to draw just any star. He teaches us to draw a four-pointed star. A four-pointed, three-dimensional star that appears to rise magically out of a flat piece of paper, which magic is ascribed to something called optical illusion. 

INTO MRS. ROSEN'S CLASS ONE DAY slouches a lanky, slope-shouldered, lady with ray-gun eyes and skin like polished glass. Miss Barnette is director of the Marching Unit, a group of 20 boys in white ducks and white, short-sleeved shirts who do close-order drill for fancy school occasions; she is also faculty head of the Safety Patrol, a select dozen students who get to wear the most extraordinary white bandoleers across their chests and are charged with managing the safe conduct of children from one side of the busy street in front of the school to the other. In other words, she's in charge of the two most prestigious enterprises to a boy's mind in Biscayne Elementary School. Mrs. Rosen announces that Miss Barnette has arrived in our classroom to do something she has never done before. She's going to select a fourth-grader for the Marching Unit, an organization heretofore made up solely of fifth- and sixth-graders - Big Kids. Unbelievable! More unbelievable is why - while I'm glancing around enviously at the likely candidates - she picks me.

In the fifth and sixth grades, I am a Patrolboy and the leader of the Marching Unit. Miss Barnette repeatedly preaches with religious fervor an idea I now embrace obsessively: ''If you're going to do something - for Godsake, do it as well as you can and with all your heart, and if you're going to lead, for Godsake, stand forward, be proud.'' She is the first to teach me about a performer's obligation to a live audience. My own variation on her preachment is that you can't ever fully succeed unless you're willing to risk catastrophic failure. 

IN THE SIXTH GRADE, THERE'S MRS. Ruth Waller, red-headed and freckled, so tough and so fair. She makes me feel, for the first time in my life, that I can not only be a member of the Marching Units and Safety Patrols of the world, but a Good Student.

She and Miss Barnette are like surrogate mothers - wise and stern, but loving and inexplicably capable of seeing what others cannot see. And I am loath now, a middle-aged man, to think what I might be if fate had not conspired to place them into my life so they could see in me what I did not. 

AT MIAMI BEACH HIGH School, I have the extraordinary good fortune to have an English teacher in each of my four years who torments me to read, to consume vocabulary and to write constantly. Pat Samuelson, 10th grade, handsome guy, works out with free weights, the girls are roundly smitten, rolls the sleeves up on his short-sleeved shirts, one of the top 10 pompadours in the history of hair. I deeply covet most of the girls who deeply covet him. He makes us write a short story. To my astonishment (because I still can't imagine I really, seriously, no-kidding-around have any particular worth whatsoever), he tells the class that my story is better than everyone else's, that he's giving me the first ''A+'' he's ever given, and he asks me if I'd like to come forward and read my story aloud. I am terrified! Part of my terror is simple stage fright; part, fear of having my secret self publicly judged. Still another part is this: a then-nebulous, indecipherable fear of being envied. Much later, I'll realize that in envy, as in admiration, are always buried the seeds of resentment and hatred of the thing or person envied. But then, in 1955, Mr. Samuelson beckons me forward and he is a man whose entire demeanor says: Don't be afraid of anything. So I go forward, take my story from him, and in the space of 20 minutes of inimitable glory and befuddlement, write a sentence across my life: Mark Medoff, you are hereby condemned, for the rest of your days, to expose your secret self publicly. 

IN THE FIRST SEMESTER of my freshman year at the University of Miami, there is Dr. Robert Hively, who on some whimsical marquee in my mind is Doctor-Doctor Robert Hively, since he has given up a prospering career in optometry to return to graduate school in midlife and get a Ph.D. in literature. He conveys no regrets that he's making a third of the money he made before. He seems utterly delighted to be in a classroom with us, charged with salvaging and enhancing another kind of vision, that communicated through letters and ideas.

He has let his curly hair grow somewhat eccentrically for 1958, and he drives a small TR-3, a car I crave, which, given his good size, he appears to wear around his waist. He teaches me the rudiments of the Hegelian dialectic (thesis, antithesis, synthesis), the ladder of abstraction and the Aristotelian syllogism, in all three cases admonishing me to think beyond generalities. These are not easy ways of thought to give up - the all-encompassing generality, the hyperbolic flatus - especially when at 18, I am armed with too little knowledge and intellectual dexterity to give specifics. But it is with Dr. Hively that I see lucidly for the first time with what ease or lack of thought, how perfidiously one can label someone or something unfairly, incompletely, disastrously. 

DR. GRACE GARLING-house-King looks and sounds as if she came to us directly from her specialty, the Victorian Era, by way of Katharine Hepburn. In the second semester of my freshman year, this seemingly remote, hopelessly inaccessible and formal scholar with the bun and the ankle-length rayon dresses is my advanced composition teacher. She's a stickler for grammar, for specifics. She considers my use of the dash - which I hold to be ''creative'' - to be absolutely barbaric.

For the first several assignments, I fastidiously follow directions. Finding that I do the assignments with ease and to her satisfaction, I ambush her boldly after class one day and announce defiantly that I'm bored with the assignments, and ask if I can write a short story for next week instead of the assigned paper. Her eyes bore into me, reading what inside I can't imagine: ''I don't know if you 'can,' '' she says, '' 'but you may try.' '' And she smiles. At me.(Contined on Page 89) At one o'clock in the morning the day after I turn in my short story, my roommate and I are awakened by the telephone. I wonder instinctively which of my parents -or is it my brother? - has died? Instead of death, there is at the other end of the line the sepulchral voice of Dr. King bearing life: ''There's nothing more I can teach you about writing. I'm passing you on.’' 

EXTRAORDINARY: TO BE passed on! To William Fred Shaw, who I'm tempted to say, aside from my parents, is the single strongest influence in my life.

Fred Shaw is at that time - early 1959 - the book editor of the Miami Daily News, head of the Guidance Center at the University of Miami, and teacher of a legendary course in creative writing. For three and a half years of college and for years of frustrating young adulthood beyond, Fred Shaw strokes me, taunts me, beats, cajoles, devastates, loves and, most of all, lets me know that if I want to badly enough I can someday become what I have come to want only: to be a writer and recognized as such.

And he teaches me most of what little I know - what little I've come to see there is to know, to be transmitted by talk - about writing.

Here it is in a paragraph, with numbers: 1) Nobody can teach anybody to write. There are only two ways to learn to write: Read. Write. 2) Don't do it if you can do something else. In other words, if you don't have to write, by all means go into other work; the years of frustration and rejection an aspiring writer will face are not worth enduring unless one is psychotic or unequivocally committed. 3) If, in fact, you do have to do it, you can figure to serve a 10-year apprenticeship. Write virtually every day for 10 years and then, given the nec-essary modicum of talent to (Continued on Page 104) begin with, maybe you can anticipate writing something worthwhile. 4) Writing is rewriting. (And nowhere, I discover years later, is that truer than in the theater.) 5) A writer can't wait for inspiration. He must discipline himself to work day in, day out - just as if it were a job rather than a gift or privilege.

Fred Shaw, this slightly stooped man with ferret eyes and a laugh like volleying bazookas, seems able to deal with each of his students as an individual, to make each feel he's the only student Fred Shaw has and that he has little more in life to do than foster that individual's growth. 

IN THE MIDST OF COL-lege, Mr. Shaw has me apply for a scholarship to the Bread Loaf (Vt.) Writers' Conference, which, to our mutual delight, I receive. I go off with my first novel in a stationery box and am assigned to work for the week with a young novelist named Richard Yates, who has just published his first - and highly acclaimed - novel, ''Revolutionary Road.'' I come to Richard Yates as students inevitably come to me: O.K., even though I know I have to do the work myself, I still suspect that someone, somewhere can tell me something that will make it easier! This floundering around is awful, this spewing of insipid passion and pretentious prose all over the place with seemingly so little comprehension of any form and no guiding intelligence in control. Richard Yates reads my frustration, reads my wishful thinking; at the end of our week together, he inscribes a copy of his novel to me: ''To Mark Medoff, In full confidence that he will do his own learning.’' 

AS A YOUNG MAN, FRED Shaw taught at a cow college called New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. When I'm ready to leave Stanford University graduate school in 1966, it's Fred who arranges for me to follow in his footsteps. It takes me a long time to understand that at some point he has begun to live through me, to the extent that he expects me to be the writer he didn't become. It's a cruel irony that he dies two years before the opening of (Continued on Page 108) my first play in New York ''When You Comin Back, Red Ryder?''

In Las Cruces, I am an instructor of English. I write prose and announce that I'll publish a novel soon. I convince several people of this, though deep in me where the truth resides, I think I'm writing one of the worst novels since the advent of the alphabet.

I am also confused on another front. I don't see how, just because I've finished graduate school, I'm sud-denly supposed to be a ''grown-up.'' I'm a kid, unformed and uninformed, the antithesis in my mind of what I have been hired to be: a teacher. I don't want to be a teacher. What do I know to teach?

There are teachers at New Mexico State University who teach me. In my first semester, I become friendly with a professor of English named John Hadsell who is deeply involved in something called the Las Cruces Community Theater. In the spirit of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, he says to me one day, ''Why don't you write a play and we'll put it on?'' I do and John does indeed see that it's ''put on.'' He is my first director and that first play, a then one-act called ''The Wager,'' eight years later opens in New York under the same title, this time as a three-act play. The teaching gift John gives me is as great as the putting on of my first play: A teacher has to be totally unafraid of what he might find out in the course of teaching something he thinks he already fully comprehends. 

ARLINE BELKIN AND Tom Erhard, colleagues now in the Theater Arts department, are role models of 20 years' standing. Tom is the opposite of the English or Dramatic Lit professor I too often encounter who hates literature and writers and tries to destroy them under the guise of reasoned criticism. Through all the semesters I watch Tom teach, I never see any lessening in him of the love of what he's teaching or the love of the classroom exchange - his teaching of the students and the students' continual teaching of the teacher. His commitment is a way of living a life.

Arline Belkin, a kitty cat disguised as a panther, takes me back to Miss Barnette and Mrs. Waller. I learn from Arline that there's no difference in being a parent at home or in the classroom, that there is an irrevocable responsibility in both roles. And it is she who admonishes me constantly to push myself, to go boldly, even recklessly, wherever I dare -that complacency makes for atrophy, and atrophy precedes death. 

I THINK ABOUT MY OWN children. One just graduated from high school, two are in elementary school. The two little ones approach school with a hunger for knowledge; the high school graduate already has experienced some two dozen teachers, and it concerns me that she never talks about becoming a teacher. I wonder if it has as much to do with the widened parameters for women as with the way children perceive adult perceptions of the people we hire to teach in our public schools. Does she wonder as I do why remarkable people still want to teach there? Does she wonder why we demand so much of our public school teachers, in terms of expertise, time and energy, yet pay them so little, not only in money but in respect?

I think finally of Irene Roberts, my 12th-grade English teacher. I am no one special in her class - just another jock who does O.K. work. I don't recall any one special bit of wisdom Miss Roberts passes on. Yet, she haunts me. She is just so full of respect for language, for ideas and writers and writing, and for us as students. She haunts me, I realize now, almost three decades later, because she is the quintessential selfless teacher.

In 1975, I return to Miami Beach High School to speak to the drama class. Afterward, I ask the drama teacher if any of those four English teachers of mine are still there. Irene Roberts, he tells me, is in class just down the hall. I'd like to say something to her, I say, but I don't want to pull her from a class - she runs, I remember, a very tight ship. Nonsense, he says, she'll be delighted to see me.

The drama teacher brings Miss Roberts into the hallway where stands this 35-year-old man she last saw at 18. ''I'm Mark Medoff,'' I tell her. ''You were my 12th-grade English teacher in 1958.'' She cocks her head at me, as if this angle might conjure me in her memory. And then this writer, armed with a message he wants to deliver in some perfect torrent of words, can't deliver anything more memorable than this: ''I want you to know,'' he says, ''you were important to me.''

And there in the hallway, this slight and lovely woman, now nearing retirement age, this teacher who doesn't remember me, begins to weep; and she encircles me in her arms.

Remembering this moment, I have a sense at last of this: Everything I will ever know, everything I will ever pass on to my students, to my children, to the people who see my plays is an inseparable part of an ongoing legacy of our shared frailty and curiosity and fear - of our shared wonder at the peculiar predicament in which we find ourselves, of our infernal and eternal hope that we can, must, make ourselves better.

Irene Roberts holds me briefly in her arms and through her tears whispers against my cheek, ''Thank you.'' And then, with the briefest of looks into my forgotten face, she disappears back into her classroom, returns to what she has done thousands of days through all the years of my absence.

On reflection, maybe those words, however ineloquent, spoken out of the entire lexicon of my language, were, after all, just the right words to say to Irene Roberts. Maybe they are the very words I would like to speak to all those teachers I carry through my life as part of me, the very words I would like spoken to me some day by some returning student: ''I want you to know you were important to me.''

http://www.nytimes.com/1986/11/09/magazine/in-praise-of-teachers.html?pagewanted=all&pagewanted=print