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Love’s Labor Lost

By Edmund Janko — October 01, 2000 3 min read
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When I began teaching high school, I knew I would never be rich. It was love that made me choose a life not far from genteel poverty.

When I began teaching high school English in 1957, I knew several things for certain. For one, I would never be rich. No villas in Tuscany for me. Also, my graduate school courses had taught me, quite convincingly, that I didn’t have the makings of a top-notch scholar or chaired college professor.

But, paradoxically, I had some of the true instincts of a scholar-that is, I genuinely loved my subject and its myriad minutiae. And I was so unworldly that I mired myself, for a time, in a master’s dissertation on the third-rate poetasters of the 18th century, a project that indulged my fondness for English eccentrics. After all, the Ossian controversy was as alive for me as the 6 o’clock news.

But it was really love that made me choose what, I’d been warned, was a life of, if not genteel poverty, something not far from it. If I couldn’t stride on an academic Olympus, I could at least pay homage to my literary totems in a high school classroom—or so I thought.

My initiation was not promising. The first text I was assigned for a senior class was a weighty tome, English Literature: Beowulf to Thomas Hardy. I was ecstatic. This was what I had hoped for. In the days before my first class, I worked on my lesson plans, determined to give the kids the full treatment, from the heroic Anglo-Saxon traditions to the music of the Elizabethans to. . .

But what I didn’t know was that my “seniors” were indeed seniors, an “off- track” class of academic losers held over for a fifth year. At first, they were stunned into silence by my manic presumption; but after a few days they concluded I was harmless and let me know they would not tolerate pedantic posturing. From then on, we engaged mostly in spelling and dreary vocabulary drills—as one aggrieved student put it, “real English.”

Despite my inauspicious start, the truth was that I had lucked out and landed in a first-rate school, one that my colleagues and I believed was among the finest in the nation. So, after I accrued modest seniority, my programs improved, and I was able to do what drew me to teaching in the first place.

Over the years, I’ve saved all my supervisory observation reports so I know exactly what I was doing at various times throughout my career. Looking back, I still marvel at the high quality of literary works I covered in many classes. For example, two years into the job, I taught a “superb” (my supervisor’s word) lesson on figurative language using one of my favorite poems, “I Think Continually of Those,” by Stephen Spender. Among the other works I taught, including, of course, the staples of yore—Julius Caesar, Silas Marner, A Tale of Two Cities, Macbeth, and Hamlet—were Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case"; The Great Gatsby; Yevtushenko’s poem about his encounter with Hemingway; Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain"; Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party"; Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil"; O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars; and Balzac’s Pere Goriot.

And, to top it all off, during my valedictory year, in an Advanced Placement class, we read Fathers and Sons, An Enemy of the People, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

So, on balance, I have no complaints or regrets. My high school teaching career is really the story of a love fulfilled.

Something needs to be said about whether or not our current classrooms offer the possibility of a love fulfilled.

That’s why I always think something is missing in the discussions about teacher shortages and recruitment problems. I’m not foolish enough to dismiss the calls for higher pay; money, of course, is important. But something also needs to be said about whether or not our current classrooms offer the possibility of a love fulfilled.

I was disturbed and saddened to hear that, in my old school, “classics"—-the works of Dickens and Eliot, for example—are now taught in adapted versions. Many physics classes are taught without math, amounting to what one astute student calls “ghetto physics.” Apparently, dumbing everything down for the MTV generation proceeds apace. And many students aren’t even showing up for class; absence and truancy are on the rise. For the evidence, check the nearest mall on any given school day.

The question is, Can love of serious learning thrive in such an environment? Accelerated retirement of senior faculty and the problems of recruiting quality replacements are, I think, eloquently sad answers.


A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2000 edition of Teacher as Love’s Labor Lost


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