Wednesday, January 19, 2011

How to Live, How to Grow: Tentative Answers

"Find a job you love, and you'll never work again."--Winston Churchill

"I never worked a day in my life."--my dad

Here is something I've thought a lot about: How should I live my life?  Some follow the precepts of a religious faith, others social conventions or family expectations.  Of course, some people never think about this at all and simply go wherever the wind blows them.  But ever since I was a young teenager, I have consciously been trying to answer this question for myself.  It hasn't always been easy.

The other day I read a review of a new book in the NY Times: "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Amy Chua.  Ms. Chua is a Harvard law professor, is married to a Harvard law professor,  and is the mother of two teenage daughters.  The girls have been denied many of the normal activities of the American teenager--sleep-overs and the like--in order to devote more time to academics.  Ms. Chua, following in her Chinese parents' footsteps, has raised her girls to be successful, obedient, focused.  When one of the children was quite young, her mother threatened to cut off the head of her teddy bear unless the played a certain piano piece perfectly.  By bedtime the little girl had managed to please her mother and toyicide was averted.  Not until the younger daughter was thirteen and rebelled--loudly and in public--did her mother reconsider her approach to child rearing.  Ms. Chua had never listened to her American husband's pleas for her to let up sometimes; she just knew her way would lead to successful adulthoods for her girls, and that, after all, was what life was for.  Success--academic, financial, social.  All that takes hard work and sacrifice, but the end result is well worth it--at least in Ms. Chua's view.

I haven't read "Tiger Mother," but this review got me thinking.  I can't generalize about everybody.  Each life is unique, and everyone has to figure things out for him/herself.  But in addition to the question, "How should I live?", another equally important question for me is "Whom should I live for?". 

I remember my mother saying once, when I was a surly teenager, "You don't fly in the face of convention."  My mother had lots of sayings like that.  I like pithy sentences that encapsulate rules-to-live-by.  "Waste not, want not."  "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."  "He who loses his temper loses the argument."  There is wisdom here.  But when my mother told me not to go against mainstream social expectations, I said silently to myself, "Watch me."

When I was in college, I had a sorority sister (Yes, I was in a sorority.  I did TRY to follow the mores of my time and place, at least sometimes.) who was headed to med. school.  She studied all the time, and I mean ALL the time.  The Saturday evening of our spring dance, she and her boyfriend closeted themselves with their books.  They never let up.  I admired her, I suppose, but I basically thought she went a bit overboard.  I've known more than a few people, many of them friends, who have been successful all their lives, for whom studying hard was a given, even if for a course that seemed boring or irrelevant to their interests.  I've always worried that I'm selfish with my time and energies.  I agree with Aristotle that one of life's aims, perhaps the principle one, is to avoid boredom.  Next to snakes, I probably fear boredom more than anything.  Exhausting yourself simply to please others or to fulfill someone else's dreams seems to me like giving up an important part of your own life.  Many years ago, when I was a high school teacher, I had a student who told the class his father had hated every day he went to work.  He'd spent twenty years of his life an unhappy man.  I wanted to avoid that if at all possible.

It's a lucky person who has a passion, be it playing an instrument, running a marathon, or breeding bulldogs.  My passion is reading.  I still find it peculiar every time I hear of a school principal volunteering to eat worms if his students will read X number of books.  (True story.)  Why anyone, even a kid, should have to be coerced or cajoled into reading is beyond me.  I am lucky to have been around books all my life.  My life would be an empty desert without them.  One of my deepest fears--and I say it now for the first time--is that I will go blind and be unable to read.  I don't like being read to, and listening to books on tape is not real reading.  So when I was in college, and in graduate school for that matter, I read a lot, not just my assigned reading but always something on the side as well.  Something just for me.  I can always find time for "selfish" reading, even if it's just ten minutes over breakfast.  I've read a lot of very fat novels over tea and an English muffin or standing in line at the DMV.  This is probably why I was a decent student but not an outstanding one. 

Fortunately my parents (both teachers) didn't seem to care.  I wasn't pushed.  In fact, one of my favorite memories of my dad was the time I got a D (oh, the truth comes out now!) in a college French course.  I was planning to major in French, so this was a something of a setback.  My father taught at the same school.  In those days grades were sent home to parents, so I knew it wouldn't be long before my failure came to light.  I decided to get the worst over with and went to my dad's office.  I had a knot in my stomach and was afraid I might cry.  I hated to cry in front of my parents; I thought it made me appear immature and weak.  I hated not being in control of my emotions.  I told Dad what had happened, knowing he would be especially disappointed as it was he who had encouraged me to major in French in the first place.  Here is what he said: "Everyone ought to get at least one D just to know what it feels like."  I will never forget that moment.  I knew that, whatever else, he was on my side.


  I have always believed that teachers are born, not made.  This is not to say that education is irrelevant or that teachers don't need to learn a very great deal before they stand in front of a classroom.  But I know I have never done anything professionally as rewarding as teaching.   For me, there was really never anything else, though it took a while to figure out what level I was best with and even longer to grow into a mature teacher with enough confidence to do things my own way.  I came to love my students even more than my subject, English literature.  I wanted to give them confidence in themselves, to encourage their independence, to demonstrate my own passion for literature in hopes they might want some of my obvious pleasure for themselves.  I believed it was more important to connect with them than to assert my authority over them.  I wanted them to follow me of their own volition because I had something they wanted.  If I could have taught without giving grades, I would have been delighted.  You do not slap a grade on a meaningful conversation; there is no need to quantify an experience that moves you.  I wanted to have conversations with my students, grounded in the literature under discussion, that went both ways and touched on real life, that answered in some fashion questions about how we should live.  I wanted to leave my classes feeling I had grown intellectually and emotionally because of what transpired between my students and myself.  I wanted to feel we were all part of a community that wanted the best for each of its members.  By the time I retired I believe I had found that.  I am grateful beyond words for my life in teaching.  If I were rich, I would have done it for nothing.

Just as there is more than one way to be an effective and loving parent, so too there are many ways to teach.  But it's not just a matter of following the right protocols, measuring input and output, or completing the syllabus.  It is about lighting fires, and that very much depends upon the personality of the teacher--and the student.  Good teaching is about relationships, about mutual affection and respect.  The indefinable quality that makes for a good teacher cannot be measured.  You know it when you see it.  That is why I believe the current emphasis on "assessment" is a cop out, a way of rewarding the mediocre (who fill out forms to perfection) and choking off the air of those who would ignite the imagination and passion of their students. 

Young children are thirsty for love and for information.  Curiosity is innate, and its cognate is love.  Just as love is essential between parent and child, so too love is important between teacher and student.  If your first-grader loves his teacher, chances are good that he will learn as much as he can.  Parents love their children even when they sink into adolescent angst.  Sadly, this is just when teachers often begin to separate themselves from their students' emotional lives.  First graders and eighth graders need very different things, but both need love to flourish.  I was a teacher, but I never for a moment considered teaching the very young, and when I taught adolescents I knew it was a bad match.  I loved my own children at those ages, but I certainly wasn't drawn to kids who weren't my own, or only rarely.  I do love young adults however, and that is where I found my niche.  Many professors avoid freshman classes like the plague.  A recent study has shown that college students don't learn all that much in their freshman and sophomore years.  Questions are being raised about how and why colleges are failing.  In my view, they are failing because many professors don't love their students.

My mother taught junior high, what we now call middle school.  I found eighth graders to be quite insane and hard to tolerate.  They are like puppies that might have been cute once but haven't grown out of the biting and chewing stage, only now their teeth are sharp.  My mother was a wonderful teacher, beloved by her students.  And she loved them; bright or slow, privileged or poor, she sympathized with their awkwardness and insecurity.  She once told me that the only way to be a good teacher was to love your students.  That may be the most important single piece of advice anyone ever gave me. 

I sympathize with freshmen, who may be away from home for the first time, who are used to succeeding but are now afraid they won't make it in college, who are ready to fall in love.  My heart goes out to all of them.  If they seem lazy or indifferent, it may be because their life is a mess.  Anger or rejection is not the correct response.  Sophomores are different.  A lot has been sorted out, friendships made, routines established.  I have found this to be the year when students are most intellectually alive.  They have discovered, if they are lucky, that there is a lot of fascinating stuff they'd had no idea about or they have found they can now see familiar things in exciting new ways.  They have not become jaded, cynical about the institution of higher learning, burned out, or increasingly anxious about what comes next.  A lot is going on in their heads; they are at the beginning of genuine maturity.  And the beginnings of things are always revelatory.  I love being there to watch them bloom, knowing that the shy, bumbling freshman of today will be a poised senior with even a bit of gravitas four years hence.

It's a matter of development, as well as good study habits or challenging courses.  Most students will write better as seniors than as freshmen, whether they take freshman comp. or not.  They will grow in wisdom as they get older, just as I hope to do.  Small children want to please their parents; so too students want to please a teacher they are fond of and who they feel cares about them.  Not all professors feel as I do, and that's OK.  By the time they're in college, students should be responsible for themselves, whether they like their professor or not.  Graduate students appreciate their professor's approval, but it probably doesn't make them work any harder.  That is why I love freshmen and sophomores.  They are old enough to know what adult love is (whether they've experienced it yet or not), so they are ready to identify with the world's greatest literature.  They inhabit a new world where anything can happen.   

1 comment:

  1. I told me mother once, in all seriousness, that I would kill myself if I went blind. She replied, in all seriousness, that she understood. A life where I cannot read books on a page (or on a screen, I guess, if necessary) is not worth living. That is neither cliche nor hyperbole. It's just how I feel.