Thursday, April 26, 2012

Getting to R

(This is the eighteenth in what will eventually be series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken: each post centers on a topic suggested by the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)

I just dropped in, to see what condition my condition was in… (Mickey Newbury)
A reliable wheelhorse... (Gilbert Highet)

Well, somewhere in this little alphabetic odyssey we have embarked upon, we seem to have turned a corner. If M marked the middle and Z marks the end, we're well over the hump. But we're still not close enough that the end is in sight.

For many years, I kept a journal of my teaching practice. One year, in the middle of March, I found myself questioning myself, what I was doing, what my students were learning, why I was still teaching and so on. But there was something about the condition from which I was writing which also conveyed to me a profound sense not just of discouragement, but of déjà vu. I went back to the shelf of previous journals and began looking through them, and, sure enough, pretty much every year, the middle of March was the low point, the point when the novelty had definitely worn off, and even though it was still too far from the end of the year to feel the sense of impending relief, it was close enough to induce despair that I, that we, that the class would ever be able to accomplish the grand goals I had held in mind back in September. It was something of a relief for me to recognize this as a regular and predictable part of the rhythm of the school year, and to see that in a few more weeks we would be almost home, and that it would be downhill all the way to the finish line.

That word "downhill," of course, can be read two different ways. It can suggest, as it just did, that the course is getting progressively easier, and that the sight of the finish line can trigger a boost of energy that will carry us through to the end. But "downhill all the way" can, in a different sense, suggest a decline from the high point of performance, with the likelihood that things will more likely get worse from here on in, rather than better. I am reminded of a quotation from a book I read during freshman year in college. The book made a strong impression on me at that time—I still have it on my bookshelf in my office—and turned out to be a minor but not insignificant factor in my decision to major in Philosophy. The book was The Career of Philosophy, and the author, John Herman Randall, had this to say about the human experience:

The main features of human life remain universal: birth, growing up, making a living, getting on with one's fellows—the urge of sex, the desire to understand—failure, frustration, sickness, and death.

It's an elegantly crafted little sentence, culminating, after the introductory generalization leading up to the colon, with a three-part sequence which mirrors the three phases of life it describes. It's a sentence that has stuck in my head for decades. And, to return to the point that I was making, everything following the second em-dash might be said to be descriptive of a stage of life that we can all anticipate experiencing, sooner or later, that might euphemistically be called "going downhill."

Which is all by way of introduction to what I really wanted to write about, what I have actually been planning to write about, every since way back when (perhaps at M) when I got to R. Because, as it turns out, R has a place in the alphabetical sequence which has already been remarked upon by Virginia Woolf:

One of my favorite passages in literature is the section of To The Lighthouse in which Mr. Ramsay, who has been watching his wife and son from a distance, while trying to resettle his mind following a very slightly disagreeable conversation with the two of them. Woolf takes us into Ramsay's mind as he reflects upon the condition of his condition:

He was safe, he was restored to his privacy. He stopped to light his pipe, looked once at his wife and son in the window, and as one raises one's eyes from a page in an express train and sees a farm, a tree, a cluster of cottages as an illustration, a confirmation of something on the printed page to which one returns, fortified, and satisfied, so without his distinguishing either his son or his wife, the sight of them fortified him and satisfied him and consecrated his effort to arrive at a perfectly clear understanding of the problem which now engaged the energies of his splendid mind.

It was a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q.

…But after Q? What comes next? After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance. Z is only reached once by one man in a generation. Still, if he could reach R it would be something. Here at least was Q. He dug his heels in at Q. Q he was sure of. Q he could demonstrate. If Q then is Q--R--. Here he knocked his pipe out, with two or three resonant taps on the handle of the urn, and proceeded. "Then R ..." He braced himself. He clenched himself.

Qualities that would have saved a ship's company exposed on a broiling sea with six biscuits and a flask of water--endurance and justice, foresight, devotion, skill, came to his help. R is then--what is R? 

A shutter, like the leathern eyelid of a lizard, flickered over the intensity of his gaze and obscured the letter R. In that flash of darkness he heard people saying--he was a failure--that R was beyond him. He would never reach R. On to R, once more. R--
Qualities that in a desolate expedition across the icy solitudes of the Polar region would have made him the leader, the guide, the counsellor, whose temper, neither sanguine nor despondent, surveys with equanimity what is to be and faces it, came to his help again. R--  The lizard's eye flickered once more. The veins on his forehead bulged. The geranium in the urn became startlingly visible and, displayed among its leaves, he could see, without wishing it, that old, that obvious distinction between the two classes of men; on the one hand the steady goers of superhuman strength who, plodding and persevering, repeat the whole alphabet in order, twenty-six letters in all, from start to finish; on the other the gifted, the inspired who, miraculously, lump all the letters together in one flash--the way of genius. He had not genius; he laid no claim to that: but he had, or might have had, the power to repeat every letter of the alphabet from A to Z accurately in order. Meanwhile, he stuck at Q. On, then, on to R.

Feelings that would not have disgraced a leader who, now that the snow has begun to fall and the mountain top is covered in mist, knows that he must lay himself down and die before morning comes, stole upon him, paling the colour of his eyes, giving him, even in the two minutes of his turn on the terrace, the bleached look of withered old age. Yet he would not die lying down; he would find some crag of rock, and there, his eyes fixed on the storm, trying to the end to pierce the darkness, he would die standing. He would never reach R.

This passage blew me away when I first read it. It dramatizes with great sympathy and perceptiveness exactly what Randall was getting at and exactly what all of us must eventually come to terms with: the gap between our aspirations and our abilities, between the size of the challenges we choose to take on and the amount of time that we are given, as humans, to try to make headway against them. 

The other day I was waiting for a meeting to begin in a classroom and I was looking over some books on a bookshelf. I saw a book there called The Art of Teaching by Gilbert Highet, whose name I remembered from my study of classics in college. I picked up the book and began thumbing through it, and liking the tonality of what I found there, I brought it home and began reading it last night. I'll close with a passage from the first part of that book in which Highet considers the fate of young (university) teachers who allow themselves to lose sight of the grander goals of scholarship, and where they find themselves a result,.His characterization, while clearly intended to be humorous, is also sobering, if only because Highet is setting the bar very high, for all of us. How many of us, he seems to be saying, can hope even to get to R?

They are apt to take a job teaching (say) "English," and to spend the first few years reading beginners' essays and giving simple general courses. Much of their attention at this time is taken up with getting married, having a family, and trying to meet the bills. Then they may slip into giving the series of lectures on the American novel formerly given by old Professor Crum, who has just retired; and another class on seventeenth-century prose to fit in with a newly announced course on seventeenth century poetry. They spend three years working these up, and write a few articles on points of interest which they meet en route—a new source for Donne's 49th sermon, the first draft of The Princess Cassamassima. They are still reading a large number of students' essays too. Meanwhile their administrative duties begin to pile up, they become members of the Hebdomadal Committee and the Junior Deans, they take on outside work as advisor to the Periphrasis Press and examiner to the Joint Board and reviewer specializing in "avant garde novels," the children are growing fast and food-bills are heavy, then one year there is the additional inducement of teaching in California during the summer session, they have to work up two new courses, and next summer these will be used again, perhaps they could be expanded for a winter series although neither of them really dovetails with the American novel or seventeenth century poetry, still it is a fine thing to be competent in a number of different fields, a reliable wheelhorse, you might say. And they go on like this, filling in here and fitting in there, half because of pressure, half through inertia, until they wake up at age forty and look around to discover that they have not really solid interests, no large book in the making, and so only a vaguely defined reputation. They can still be happy, for it is a delightful career to teach one of the world's great literatures. Yet they will have a sense of lost opportunity, and they will have earned it.

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