Once More, With Feeling

By David Ruenzel — November 01, 2002 22 min read
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Frustrated, David Ruenzel quit the classroom more than a decade ago.Then last year, he returned to teaching and discovered a simple truth: relationships are at the heart of education.
—Fred Mertz

In June 2001, after more than 10 years of scratching out articles in my home office, shuttling my kids to athletic and cultural activities, and playing tennis in the afternoon with retired men 20 years my senior, I felt what can be described only as the call to teach. This surprised me, because when I stopped teaching high school English in 1990, I was sure I would never do it again. For one thing, my wife’s career in the publishing industry was more lucrative than mine and kept us moving around. For another, I’d felt insecure in the classroom, even though I was 35 and had taught for almost a decade. I desperately wanted to be a great educator like my charismatic colleague, Ben, whose students followed him out to the parking lot after school. But I feared I didn’t have the right stuff. Never really sure of myself or even of what I was trying to accomplish, I was plagued by self-consciousness and brooded over my failures. A student not doing his work, or suddenly turning hostile, or drifting off to sleep as I spoke—such problems, as common as they are in schools, drove me to despair.

But now I was 46, certainly wiser and more emotionally balanced. Things would be different this time. Aside from any other changes, I had teenagers of my own, so I knew a little about the importance of not taking adolescents’ attitudes personally. I had also, despite my family obligations, managed to visit dozens of classrooms around the country as a writer for this and other publications. Each of the schools was different, sometimes radically so. At one, children studied Mother Goose and the Napoleonic Wars in tandem; at another, they played the recorder and chanted poems about mountain spirits. In some, teachers stood at the front of the room and lectured; in others, they strolled around with coffee mugs in hand, like benevolent newsroom editors dispensing sage advice.

I’d adopt the kindly editor model, developing informal, rewarding relationships with my students. Nothing, I was sure, would rattle me. Teaching might not be easy, but uncertainty and self-doubt no longer would cripple me. And so, in September of last year, I began my journey back into education. The venue would be a grades 6-12 private school that serves mostly affluent kids but some students on scholarships; I’d teach grades 10, 11, and 12. The school, spread across 100 acres at the foot of a great mountain near San Francisco, offers a liberal, relaxed culture. Students wend their way down stone paths from one cedar-shingled building to the next, where they greet Birkenstock-clad instructors by their first names as though they were old friends. I felt good about my choice as I geared up for the fall courses. But as it turns out, my reentry—told below as it happened—was tougher than I’d hoped.

The old nagging doubts begin trickling in early on. All kinds of situations surface in which I’m unsure what to do, and I change my mind frequently. I identify strongly with T.S. Eliot’s indecisive, self-conscious character in his famous 1915 work, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I cycle little loads of the poem through my memory: “In a minute there is time/For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”

My epic literature seminar, which has been working its way through Beowulf and Homer, takes a decidedly downward and prosaic turn. For this I mostly blame one student, Daniel, and myself, for not controlling him better. Daniel is the star of the high school debate team and almost compulsively contentious. A senior with a thin face, wiry frame, fierce blue eyes, and blond hair that matches his closely cropped beard, he looks lean and hungry. He also favors camouflage pants, which lend him a somewhat menacing air. In class, he either dismisses or mocks much of what I and his classmates say. He declares, for example, that Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize-winning poet whose introduction to Beowulf we read, is an “idiot.” With a savage but effective sophistry, he argues that Hitler was no more evil than Bill Clinton or George Bush. When, during a much-needed break from epic literature, we read Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress and I ask what the students think the poet means by “vegetable love,” Daniel answers, “a cucumber dildo.” I ignore this and other such comments.

Daniel’s fellow students generally ignore him, too—though, for reasons I do not understand, he’s routinely humored by a couple of very bright girls. A few kids roll their eyes when he’s especially argumentative. Most, I suspect, are waiting for me to rein him in.

One day I’m on the verge of doing just that. While we’re talking about the ancient Greeks, someone asks about The Republic. I comment on Plato’s intentions, and Daniel, furrowing his brow and sitting up stick-straight, asserts, “I thought everybody knew that Plato wrote The Republic as a joke.” He claims that a book on one of the room’s shelves proves his point, so he leaps from his chair—this in the very middle of class—and walks directly in front of me to get it.

A student not doing his work, or suddenly turning hostile, or drifting off to sleep as I spoke drove me to despair.

I am more startled than upset and immediately, in rapid-fire fashion, ask myself a series of questions. Should I order him to sit back down? This goes against my generally liberal instincts and could provoke an unpleasant response. Should I let it go now but talk to him later? Other teachers have told me that he thrives on such one-on-one confrontations. Maybe talk about his attitude with the dean of students? That might be a case of passing the buck. Furthermore, is his behavior really inappropriate? After all, this somewhat untraditional school encourages kids to take intellectual risks, and here is Daniel doing nothing more—perhaps—than searching for a book. Another line from Prufrock tumbles into my head: “So how should I presume?” And I feel suddenly weary and awkward, like the middle-aged Prufrock: “I grow old.../I grow old.../I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

This time, anyhow, Daniel spares me from making a decision. He glances at the shelf, shrugs his shoulders, and then sits back down, as if he has done nothing more than examine a T-shirt he’s decided not to buy.

During the next few weeks, Daniel seems relatively subdued—he’s also gone quite a bit on college visits— and I try to put the incident behind me. One day, right before spring break, we are discussing my beloved “Prufrock” as an example of an “anti-epic.” The poem’s character isn’t capable of any action at all, much less heroic action, I explain. While an epic hero bravely ventures forth into a dangerous world, slaying Trojans and monsters, the balding Prufrock can hardly muster the courage to venture into the London streets. And when he does, he agonizes over possible social interactions and the threat of rejection. Fixated on details, he is paralyzed by fear and self-doubt, like a bug “pinned and wriggling on the wall.”

My students are engaged by Prufrock’s monologue, and our discussion is both freewheeling and focused, probably because Daniel is absent. But then he shows up with a late pass halfway through class. Within five minutes, he weighs in. “Where are we seeing all of this in the poem?” he asks tauntingly. “Is it possible that it’s just words on paper, or can we never let that happen? I don’t think this poem has any meaning at all—none at all.”

A few students protest. “Oh, Daniel,” one moans. Others laugh nervously. And I, feeling bruised and indignant, finally give myself permission to blow up. “What do you mean, the poem has no meaning?” I bark. “Do you mean that it’s a random string of words? That a monkey pounding at a keyboard could have produced the same thing? That’s insane!”

Clearly, Daniel is caught off- guard. He leans back in his chair and looks down at his hands. He opens his mouth once, then twice, to speak but thinks better of it, lapsing into uncharacteristic silence. The others are silent, too. The session ends with me making a few stumbling observations about the poem.

Later, after school, a colleague tells me that a couple of my best students had come into her class complaining of how I had browbeaten them. From then on, whenever I take the emotional temperature of the room, I sense tension. I construe this as an epic defeat.

In another class, sophomore American lit, I face a less painful but more interesting dilemma. Hannah, a big-boned girl who often swipes her unruly blond hair out of her face, has been drawing throughout class. The tables in the room are arranged in a square, and because she sits next to me, I could easily tell her to put the sketch pad away. But I don’t. Her drawings, mostly renditions of characters from J.R.R. Tolkien and other fantasy writers, are elaborate and hallucinogenic. And she works at them with such zeal—squinting at the page, tilting her head this way and that while following a line—that I feel it would be unnecessarily cruel to stop her. Besides, we have built up a little rapport around this work of hers that I don’t want to lose, especially since she has a reputation as a somewhat aloof, morose young woman. I sometimes offer comments about the sketches before class, and she’ll tell me what she’s trying to accomplish. One morning, she has me look at a drawing. “It’s a spiked olive in a martini glass,” I say, after a glance. “Look more closely,” she says. When I do, I see that the spiked olive is actually a girl impaled on a swizzle stick.

A few weeks later, I reconsider my earlier decision: I think I will tell Hannah to put the sketch pad away. She has failed a couple of reading quizzes and is in danger of disappearing into her art altogether. Besides, she and I are setting a poor example for the other kids. How can I insist that they stay focused and take notes if I’m letting her off scot-free?

Right around this time, Hannah—who has been a competent but carelessly indifferent writer—submits an essay on the role of women in The Grapes of Wrath. It reads in part: “Ma Joad held the family together, an arbiter of troubles who seemed both remote and flawless in judgment, with the agile hands of a little girl and stoic eyes that seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and mounted pain. This transformed her from a traditional woman into a calm goddess with superhuman understanding.”

I like the essay so much that I share it with the rest of the students, who offer Hannah abundant praise. In the following weeks, she sketches less and participates more, injecting unconventional perspectives into our discussions. I reconsider again: I will let her sketch to her heart’s content.

Almost as soon as I make the decision, Hannah disengages from the class and once again disappears into her sketchbook. I let it go. Eventually, she completes the course with a C.

Hannah’s and Daniel’s stories are the ordinary stuff of teaching. They lack the cinematic drama of, say, Jaime Escalante’s previously uninspired students whizzing through algebra equations as captured in the film Stand and Deliver. But they get at the heart of what I’ve learned in my return foray into teaching, a lesson that’s so simple I can’t believe I never recognized it before.

It occurs to me that the ordinary stories—centered on what to do and say, with what individual in what class under what circumstances—make up the routine dilemmas of teaching. And the routine dilemmas make up much of what is teaching.

Above all, teaching is about relationships. And because it’s about relationships, it’s also characterized by questions that can never be fully resolved. Relationships, even as we try to build them, are subject to erosion, breakage, various ills. That’s why relationships are hard to create and harder still to sustain, and why it’s much more difficult to be a good teacher than most people imagine.

It occurs to me that the ordinary stories make up the routine dilemmas of teaching. And the routine dilemmas make up much of what is teaching.

Over the past decade or so, an increasing number of people—most of them nonteachers—have tried to deny that teaching is primarily about relationships. They have argued that it’s about developing curricula, establishing standards,improving pedagogy, and creating new kinds of schools. Teaching certainly is about these things, at least some of the time. But to assert that it’s primarily about these things is a great deception, a way to create the impression that what goes on in schools is largely in our control.

Of course, some educators manage to avoid the many dilemmas and messy relationships of teaching by working in large, impersonal classes—or at least by acting as though they do. When I was a nervous novice more than 20 years ago, I would ease my discomfort by imagining that I was talking to a crowd, a standard mass of students with a tidy distribution along the bell curve. Anonymity was clean and comfortable, andit removed a lot of my uncertainty. I could go home at night and leave my job behind.

Toward the end of that first year, though, a young woman submitted an essay about how a “friend” of the family had sexually abused her when she was a preteen. I didn’t have the faintest idea what to do. Eventually, I called her in for a conference about the essay, during which I offered what struck me instantly as canned sympathy. It wasn’t that I was a callous person, only that I had never really seen her, or any of the others, as an individual with whom I had a relationship and hence an obligation. I was ashamed, and the meeting proved a turning point: I resolved to not remain so aloof from my students.

But even when teachers are faced with individuals, perhaps in small schools with small classes, some still manage to eradicate indecisiveness. These teachers simply hew ferociously to a guiding philosophy. Take my story of Hannah as an example. For a certain kind of teacher—perhaps one who simply will not put up with “nonsense"—it would be imperative that Hannah slide the sketchbook into her bag and never take it out again. No “extracurriculars” in my class! For another kind of teacher—say, one who believes that learning must stem from intrinsic interest—letting Hannah draw might be the only reasonable thing to do. The child must be allowed to pursue her passion!

Of course, there is a rub in all this:Although having a well- defined philosophy helps minimize dilemmas, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to be a good teacher.

When I was an education reporter, I spent a lot of time sitting in the backs of classrooms observing teachers, sometimes one after the other, all day long. Somewhere along the line it occurred to me that the weaker teachers had the most marked philosophies. You could always see their pedagogical principles at work in what they said and did: The premises to which they had pledged allegiance clicked and clacked like gears in a science exhibit.

The stronger teachers, on the other hand, may have had philosophies, but mostly these notions were unseen and incidental. In personal style, these teachers were everything from reserved to flamboyant, but they were alike in some key ways. They all were highly attuned to the climates in the room, to what the students were thinking and feeling. They were not afraid of silences, approaching them as a time for reflection. And they did not run from awkwardness, confusion, or tension because they knew these were unavoidable if they were to connect with and challenge their students every day.

My old colleague Ben was especially loved by his students, despite the fact that—or perhaps because—he lost his temper every few weeks. Some kids would turn in shoddy essays or neglect to do the assigned reading, and he would storm from the classroom with a red face and clenched fists, claiming that he could no longer teach such laggards. I certainly wouldn’t behave that way, nor would I recommend it for anyone else. But his students, understanding that he could expect a lot because he gave a lot, not only forgave him everything but worked extraordinarily hard for him.

Despite my problems with Daniel and Hannah, other aspects of my teaching seem to be going well. I’m making progress in my “writers workshop,” a class for upperclassmen who are getting a last-ditch chance to improve their prose. The students, most of whom would rather be assigned extended kitchen duty than face an intensive composition course, have spent years of despondency in the bogs of fragments, comma splices, and tangled thesis statements from which meaning has no escape. But after several weeks, the mood of despair begins to dissipate.

Basically, I give them an assignment each Monday (such as writing a persuasive essay) and talk about how they might approach it (such as introducing the opposition’s viewpoint and proceeding to crush it). Then I spend the next few days walking around the classroom, standing next to kids’ desks and reading essays in progress. I offer matter-of-fact commentary, such as “Now, what’s your point here, Brian?” or “Maybe you should learn how to use the semicolon, Ellen.” When I become aware of a critical mass of shared errors— shifting tenses, nonparallel construction—I give the kids a mini-lesson with titles like “Our friend, the comma.”

It’s all ordinary stuff, but it works. Because I think I know a fair amount about writing, I don’t need—as I did 20 years ago—a grand plan for teaching the subject. Instead, I make the class up as I go along. In fact, I’m wearing that kindly editor role like a comfortable old sweater. And the kids respond to my relaxed approach with something distinctly resembling enthusiasm. After a while, they no longer have the patience for my walk-around; they hover over me, waving their essays. If I am occupied with a student, then they besiege one another: “What do you think of this thesis?” “Is this clear?” “Read this story—it’s funny.”

A colleague tells me that a couple of my best students had come into her class complaining of how I had browbeaten them.

Things are going so well that I let my classroom become a movable feast: On Fridays, which are double periods, I have the class of 15 teenagers drive over to the local Starbucks. I figure this will increase the more natural, real- world environment I’m shooting for, and it does. The kids sit on the deck under the umbrellas, sipping mochas and reading one another’s papers. Anyone looking at them might imagine they’re promising young authors, which I’m thinking a few of them just might be.

At the end of the semester, after the grades have been turned in, I begin reading the students’ course evaluations feeling pretty confident. In the block where the kids have been asked to assess the overall qualityof the course in a few sentences, they write, one after the other, the most cursory remarks: “Excellent,” “Very good,” “Liked it.”

When asked for suggestions for improving the course, the most common responses are “Nothing” and “The teacher won’t give A’s.” Asked what they like best, a handful of students writes one word: “Starbucks.”

Although I’m still convinced the students have learned a lot, getting one- or two-word evaluations from kids supposedly taught to analyze and write makes me wonder. I’m learning that perhaps what looks like success may, to some extent at least, be failure, and vice versa. As teachers, we see through a glass darkly, never quite knowing just howeffective—or ineffective—we have been. And I realize that I must accept this uncertainty. This reality is reinforced once again in Daniel’s class as the year progresses. By mid-April, my epic lit class is crashing and burning. Even the more reliable kids are losing interest as multiple forces conspire against me. The weather has grown warm, so guitar-playing and displays of teenage romance have broken out on the quad. The seniors, who constitute half the class, have completely checked out, looking past high school into college. Worst of all, Daniel has attained new heights of irreverence and irrelevancy.

Burdened with a sense of failure, I sweat and stammer as I try to lead yet another doomed discussion. Most students also despise the medieval book I have assigned, The Quest of the Holy Grail. A brief discussion of the Pentecost, during which the Grail hovers over the Round Table, somehow results in caustic remarks about priests and pederasty. I’m frustrated with these affluent young people, raised in the temperate New Ageism of Northern California: They are tolerant of almost everything but religion (unless, that is, it’s Zen or Hinduism). Christians, they argue, tend to be scoundrels, hypocrites, or alcoholics finding Jesus on the rebound. When I remonstrate, trying to get them to think about Christianity from a historical perspective, one student accuses me of proselytizing.

It gets to the point where I am terribly anxious before every class, which strikes me as foolish beyond belief. But I’m feeling as insecure as I did when I began teaching decades ago. My stomach is unsettled, and I don’t know how to begin my lessons, even though I come prepared with a meticulously constructed list of discussion questions. Often when I arrive in the classroom, some of the seniors are stretched out over the tables in postures of luxuriant idleness; others have their arms crossed in defiance, like union leaders determined not to budge from their demands. I feel I am Prufrock once again, awkward and despairing: “And I have known the eyes already, known them all—/The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase....”

Desperate to find a better approach—or at least one that is less unremittingly painful—I acknowledge the futility of my current tack. I tell the class one day, holding up the Holy Grail, “We need to try something else,” and ask for alternatives.

Daniel, who has been cackling at something or other, elongates his face to achieve a solemn effect. “Independent study,” he declares. “We can read a work of literature in groups and then present it to the class, discussing its epic dimensions.” He turns to his classmates. “What do you think? It’s a good idea, isn’t it?” He gets unanimous assent.

“I’ve never done anything like this before, letting students work on their own for several weeks,” I say.

“We have, and it works wonderfully,” Daniel asserts.

“You’ll all be motivated enough to do this on your own?”


“You’ll be able to present a polished project to the class in three weeks?”


So, for the next couple of weeks students check in at the beginning of class, which means I ask a few basic questions, like “What are you planning?” and “How’s it going?” Then they sit outside on the quad “working” on their projects.

I’m convinced I’m being duped, and yet I know I’ve allowed myself to be suckered because anything is better than having to teach this class of conscientious resisters. Nevertheless, I’m feeling profoundly guilty. What kind of teacher am I to surrender control of my class? To demand so little? To submit to their intractability?

But to my pleasant surprise, when the presentations begin toward the end of May, they’re all interesting, to say the least. The first, titled “The Chemical Epic,” is an exploration of The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley’s book about his experiences with mescaline. The students’ thesis, which they expound upon while showing a quasi-surrealistic movie they made in the mountains, is that the epic quest in a contemporary Western society can exist only as an interior journey. “We cannot afford the ancient Homeric kind of epic, in which Achilles or Odysseus gains glory through deeds that are oftentimes violent,” one student summarizes. “So drugs are used to embark upon the quest for self.”

For another presentation, Daniel and his fellow seniors show a parody- soaked documentary they’ve made about Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The film is narrated with an exaggerated British accent by a student named Phillip, and it’s shot at various settings around the San Francisco Bay. At Fisherman’s Wharf, the World War II submarine USS Pampanito stands in as the story’s Nautilus. Somehow, the students have gained access to the Pampanito, where Daniel, playing a severe Nemo, launches into a discourse on the nature of the mad scientist. His monologue ends abruptly when, after the first mate announces “giant squid astern,” Daniel, in quirky cartoon fashion, tumbles down a hatch.

Viewing these projects, I conclude that Daniel was pretty wise in his request for more freedom, and I must question my earlier doubts about granting it. Clearly, I have never liked Daniel much. In fact, I have sometimes despised him. But for a passing moment, I think of how I will miss him when he graduates.

Now, more than a year after my return to the classroom, I find myself unsure why some choices I made turned out well and others didn’t. Just how much my students learned—and how effective I’ve been as a teacher—can only be loosely approximated. And so, as I look back, I can’t say that I am definitely a better teacher than I once was.

I do know one thing for certain. I can accept dilemmas—the necessary string of unresolved conflicts and uncertain results—far better than before.

I do, however, know one thing for certain. I can accept dilemmas—the necessary string of unresolved conflicts and uncertain results—far better than before. I’ve learned that dilemmas make us think; they make us stop and take notice of what we’re doing and where we’re going. Without them, teachers like those with their one-note philosophies and those who work with a faceless mass are unlikely to reach their students in the ways I hope to reach mine.

In my writers workshop, I had an extremely shy senior from Taiwan named Tina. I knew she spoke English well enough because I would hear her conversing with friends outside school, but she never spoke in class. Occasionally, when she found something amusing, she’d giggle with her hands cupped over mouth. I met with her every week or so, as I did with all of the students, to discuss whatever paper she was working on. Although she would nod vigorously when she finally understood what I was getting at—she had an extremely difficult time with writing mechanics—she would hardly utter a thing besides “thank you.”

At our school, each senior chooses a teacher to “present” him or her at graduation, to say a few words about the graduate and bestow the diploma. In May, I received a note in my mailbox saying that Tina had chosen me. I was honored and said so at graduation. I didn’t know, I added, that I’d had any particular influence on her, and I was gratified to discover that I apparently did.

Several months later, I still have not been able to figure out why Tina chose me. Obviously, something I did worked. But what, exactly, is a question— the kind of question that has brought me back for another year of teaching.

Perhaps I’ll never be, to paraphrase Prufrock, a heroic, Prince Hamlet kind of teacher. But at the very least, I can be an effective “attendant lord, one that will do/To swell a progress, start a scene or two.”


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