Once again award-winning writer and educator Bob Greenman takes us on a journey through words selected from More Words That Make a Difference, a delightful book illustrating word usage with passages from the Atlantic Monthly. Here Bob muses on the start of another school year, with an ardor that is far from noncommittal.
It's the beginning of the school year and I'm missing it quite regretfully, as I have ever since I left full-time teaching. All those young people who came into my life for the first time each September — names to learn, personalities to become acquainted with and adjust to, intelligences to nurture, minds and natures to affect and be affected by, many of whom have remained friends up to this moment.
In the years since I've been out of the classroom, I have often wondered, "Who would I have known? Who have I missed out on? Whose lives would I have touched, whose would have touched mine?" Where else, except in teaching, does one get to meet so many people and to know them so well?
Too bad for any high school teacher who isn't excited by, or interested in, a classroom of teenagers, not just on the first day but every day. Of course, loving one's subject is essential, but the high school teacher's life is not so much what he or she is teaching, as it is whom. I know just what Claude M. Fuess meant in his October 1932 Atlantic article, "The Creed of a Schoolmaster," when he wrote:
Nobody is more deadening than a teacher who pursues day after day the same routine, until his pupils sit down at their desks without curiosity and get up from them with delight. No profession requires more long-continued and unfading ardor. A teacher without enthusiasm is as discouraging as a flat tire.
(Claude M. Fuess, an ardent English teacher at Phillips Academy at Andover, Mass., beginning in 1908, and its headmaster from 1933 until 1948, inculcated in his staff his ideal of the informal and kind but intellectually stimulating teacher.)
The passage's featured word is ardor (AR duhr), the passion, emotional warmth, enthusiasm and eagerness that people invest in the pursuits they love and are excited by. Ardor's original Latin sense meant a burning, a fiery, red-hot combustible glow. I can't show an English teacher's ardor to you here, but for the embodiment of ardor, watch Leonard Bernstein conduct Mahler here.
More commonly used than the noun ardor is the adjective ardent. How about those ardent Red Sox fans whose passionate hope carried them for 84 years from their 1918 World Series win until the next one in 2004, or the ardent Grateful Dead fans who follow their idols from concert to concert. My high school friend Jesse Miller, an ardent fan of the opera diva Zinka Milanov, carried her autographed photo in his wallet and crossed his last name out in my yearbook and replaced it with "Milanov."
Speaking of opera, in a recent New York Times review of Tosca, at the Metropolitan Opera, Times reviewer Anthony Tommasini wrote: "Mr. Álvarez looked a little paunchy in his tight-fitting pants and coat, the work of the costume designer Milena Canonero. But what mattered was his ardent singing. Here was a true Puccini tenor, with warm, throbbing supple phrasing and some triumphant top notes, including a defiant high A-sharp when he sang "Vittoria" at the news of Napoleon's victory at the Battle of Marengo."
Headmaster Fuess was no doubt familiar with a type of teacher who is far rarer now than during the era in which he taught, and which he describes here in a passage featuring the word castigate (KA stuh gayt), a harsh-sounding word that comes from the same Latin root as chastise, and means to criticize or punish severely, especially by harsh public criticism.
One of the lowest forms of human life is the professorial bully whose temper is not under control. I have known cases where a sensitive youngster, at the mere preliminary rumble of the tyrant's voice, has shivered with fear. Perhaps there are some types of boys who deserve verbal castigation, just as there are animals that can learn only through a sound beating. But the tongue, always an unruly member, is a dangerous weapon, and a cowardly one when conditions allow the victim no retaliation.
In this more enlightened time, few teachers exist of the kind Dr. Fuess was lamenting, and I, personally, never encountered one during my school days or as a colleague. Quite the opposite. Today's American classroom is a pretty egalitarian place, where teachers gain respect for their knowledge, competence, fairness and amiability. Few feel the need to assert their authority or browbeat, and even fewer show a bullying temper.
Which is not to say that castigation isn't everywhere you look, as witness South Carolina's Republican senator Joe Wilson castigating President Obama by shouting "You lie!" during his health care address to Congress; or parents castigating their kids for texting during dinner; or Serena Williams castigating a tennis official; or the Food and Drug Administration castigating the tobacco industry for luring children and teenagers into smoking by selling flavored cigarettes.
In the same Atlantic article, Headmaster Fuess wrote:
Many otherwise brilliant teachers fail because they lack patience. They expect all their pupils to seize the point after the first explanation; they even somewhat resent having to repeat what seems to them a very simple postulate. It is so easy, from a position of superior knowledge or appreciation, to develop unconsciously an attitude verging on superciliousness.
If you've ever raised your eyebrows at someone or something haughtily, disdainfully or contemptuously, you've behaved superciliously (soo: per SI lee uhs lee). A New York Times reporter's supercilious review of Manhattan's first J. C. Penney store brought charges of elitism from readers, not to mention from J. C. Penney. Believers in evolution tend to look superciliously at creationists. A sommelier, or wine steward, may treat diners who order an inexpensive wine superciliously. (Have I treated my readers superciliously by explaining what a sommelier is?)
Once you know the word's derivation, it's a hard word to forget, for supercilious derives from the Latin super, above, and cilium, from the Latin cilia for eyelid or eyelash. Simply, raised eyebrows.
In that same article, Dr. Fuess describes his own experience with impatience, in a passage whose featured word is noncommital (nahn kuh MI tuhl), not committing oneself to a particular view or course of action or not revealing what one feels or thinks — at least not right away — as when you ask permission to do something, and your parent, boss or teacher says, "Let me think about it."
Once, when I had spent several minutes explaining to a boy the technical construction of Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind,' I spoke to him rather caustically about his failure to apprehend what I had been trying to say. He looked a trifle discomfited, but made no reply. A few days later, I was attempting desperately on a very cold morning to start my car, and the same lad, passing the garage door and observing my futile movements, came in. 'Can I help you, sir?' he inquired courteously. Embarrassed, I grunted a noncommittal response; whereupon he lifted the radiator hood, peered into the bowels of the engine, took from his pocket a small screw driver, made one or two motions, and said, 'I think it'll go now, sir.' Sure enough, it did. Then he expounded to me, with the forbearance of a father instructing his child, some mystery of the carburetor which I could not apprehend. Observing my perplexity, he directed my attention to the mechanism itself and, without the slightest trace of annoyance, showed me what had been wrong. He was a better teacher than I had been. To this day, when a boy wrinkles his forehead over the difference between a metaphor and a synecdoche, I remember the carburetor, moderate my wrath, and start again.
Teller (his full legal name), the silent half of the comedy magic team of Penn & Teller, has been one of the more unlikely Atlantic contributors. In his November 1997 article he described his charismatic English teacher, D. G. Rosenbaum. Although Rosenbaum's sleight of hand (slight uhv HAND) — a cleverly executed trick or deception — made his cigarettes vanish literally, when the principal was nearby, there was also something mesmerizing about the man himself that made Teller idolize him.
Thirty-four and a half years ago I was sitting in a nearly empty high school classroom in Philadelphia under the spell of my English teacher and drama coach, D. G. Rosenbaum. I idolized Mr. Rosenbaum (or "Rosey," as we Drama Society brats called him). He had a dark, resonant voice. He had a widow's peak and a moustache and goatee that made him look like Mephistopheles; he hinted that his ancestors were Scottish warlocks. He wore trim black suits, blood-red vests, and pince-nez. He smoked black cigarettes with gold tips, and made them vanish by sleight of hand when the principal was nearby.
From whence comes the magic that some teachers use to spellbind their students? What makes kids look forward every day to a certain teacher's class and revel in being there? We are fortunate if we can idolize just one teacher in our school careers. For me it was Milton Jacobs, whose mixed chorus I sang in during my three years at James Madison High School, in Brooklyn, with Jesse Miller Milanov sitting next to me in the tenor section.
What sleight of hand transformed Mr. Jacobs from the unassuming man who walked into our rehearsal room each day into the magical man on the raised platform who taught us to sing songs ranging from "Walking in a Winter Wonderland" to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic"? Was it only the music he taught 80 girls and boys in his chorus to sing so transportingly, or was it also his serene face as he conducted and brought us into his world for 40 thrilling minutes each day? If you've heard the Peter Wilhousky arrangement of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," you know what a thrill it was not just to perform it in an auditorium with a large orchestra, but simply to rehearse it in Jacobs's music room.
Sleight of hand, in the sense in which Teller used it (sleight is from an Old Norse medieval word that gave us sly) means a literal deception through the use of the hands, a now-you-see-it-now you-don't maneuver. It's the bread and butter of magicians, and that is Penn & Teller's bread and butter. In its figurative sense, though, sleight of hand can be the transformation of a great actor into any role he takes on, or to the craftiness of Bernard Madoff's financial wizardry or the sleight of hand the Soviet Union practiced when they made out-of-favor or disgraced politicians disappear from official photos.
It was by the merest chance that I fell into teaching. Possibly that is why, unfettered by pedagogic traditions and theories, I was able to throw myself unprejudiced into the life of the children and of the community, there to find adventure and happiness.
So wrote Benjamin Harrison Chaffee, in the October 1925 Atlantic, in an article about how he emerged from the First World War maelstrom, was appointed principal of a new public high school without any previous teaching experience — even directing the school's construction and populating it with students from surrounding towns and farms — and created not just a place to learn, but a place of community and kindness.
The kindness was especially crucial for the many "bad boys," who came from homes of ignorance and brutality, and who desperately needed a place of refuge and fairness. No matter how "bad" a boy was, Chaffee wrote, "each child inherently craved to achieve his best self."
Had Chaffee been fettered — restrained, confined, hampered — by the the precepts of a then conventional teacher's education, he may well have never felt the freedom to follow his good-natured instincts and his love.
What a wonderfully enlightened approach Chaffee had to education, at a time when discipline, corporal and otherwise, was a key educational philosophy in America's schools. And while few educators today deny the correctness of his approach, there's still the concern of how to implement it in a society with millions of schoolchildren in need not just of education, but health, love, and stability. In a November 1990 Atlantic article in which he advocated a longer school day, Michael J. Barrett, a Massachusetts attorney wrote:
The complaint will be heard that a school cannot be all things to all people — cannot be place of education, health-care clinic, settlement house, and neighborhood recreation center rolled into one. The pragmatic response is that a school must in fact be all these things.
And so it should be, as all teachers know, regardless of the level they teach, even college. Pragmatic (prag MA tik), derives from a Latin word meaning skilled in business and law, and means practical, looking at a problem realistically. Pragmatists believe in getting a job done in the best way it can be done at the moment, even if, to them, it's not the ideal way.
The pragmatic union leader may not be completely satisfied with his compromise with the company, but at least the union got part of what it wanted and everybody's back to work. For an Obama health plan to become a reality, the president will certainly have to be pragmatic and agree to major changes before it is passed.
My goodness, I want school to be all things to all people, and not just a place of formal education. That's the real adventure of teaching — being with young people, enjoying them, helping them in any way one can, learning from them, and, most of all, making a difference in their lives and showing them that they matter.
At the end of the school day, Elaine McCool's routine at her Brooklyn elementary school was to help her kindergarten pupils put their coats on. They knew how to dress themselves, but she wanted to make sure that she personally attended to every child in that class at least once a day. And gave them a hug.
Unfettered — and unorthodox — is what we might call Polly Schoenfeld, an English teacher at the Bronx High School of Science, in New York, who spices up her class with "singing Fridays," where, she says, her students "create songs that our fictional characters might sing to explain how they feel, or just sing something together as a class."
And a bit of unorthodoxy from me:
At the very end of the school year, when classes were over and I was preparing grades, a man entered my classroom and quietly told me he was the father of one of my seniors. He was obviously agitated.
I stood up, shook his hand and asked him to sit down on the chair next to my desk.
"Mr. Greenman," he said, "my son cut almost all your classes this semester. I don't even know if you know what he looks like."
"I know who he is," I said. "He's a nice boy."
"Mr. Greenman, he doesn't deserve to pass, I know that. But he's already been accepted into Kingsborough Community College, depending on getting his dilploma. And he's already told me that if he doesn't graduate he's going to California with a friend he was already into drugs with once before. And if he does he's lost. So, I'm asking you as a father — if you would please give him a passing grade so he can graduate and go to school in the fall."
I passed the boy. And so did the other teachers his father asked that day.