Past Imperfect

By David Ruenzel — October 01, 1994 24 min read
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The best class I ever taught was the one I ruined. It was a class of seven junior girls, all of them animated, intelligent, ambitious. Some were friends and some were not, but they had, in an almost literal sense, what’s called “chemistry.’' I’d give them a book or writing assignment and all sorts of interesting reactions would occur. I’d walk into the classroom, and they’d be arguing about whether Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter was an early feminist or whether Macbeth was a self-pitying murdering fool and not--as they thought they were supposed to think--some sort of tragic hero. The exchanges were alternately curt, contemplative, and sardonic; their fingers were always walking through the text to find the passage that would provide corroborating evidence.

Once, a visitor from another school happened to observe this class. Amazed, he asked afterward, “Is it always like this?’' “Yes,’' I said, shrugging my shoulders. I was bemused because it didn’t seem as if the girls’ scintillating discussions had anything to do with me.

Didn’t have anything to do with me. This was the problem--or I should say my problem, for it was clear that the girls were doing just fine without me. Why I finally gave in to a compulsion to intrude certainly had something to do with male ego. I wanted to be the one to make the scintillating remarks. I suppose I wanted admiration more than I wanted a good class. There was also an element of succumbing to what I thought was my duty. I had been hired to teach the class, and that I was going to do, come hell or high water. But my own voice, unlike theirs, was flat and monotonous--that of privilege asserting itself for no good reason.

That same year, I was drafted to teach an elective creative writing class. At the onset, I told the students I would have no time to prepare; they could write pretty much whatever they liked and read the result to the class, if they cared to. I did little more than provide the students with writing prompts, such as: “Describe a lake as perceived by someone who has just committed a murder.’' They would write frenziedly for 15 minutes and then take turns reading aloud what they had composed. That was pretty much it. At the end of the semester, I apologized for having left them so much on their own. The students sat dumbfounded, and I didn’t know why until one of the boys--a computer wizard who now works at Microsoft--said, “But Mr. Ruenzel, this is the best class I ever had.’'

I taught these two classes, along with freshman and senior English, for two years at University Lake School, a small K-12 independent school of 250 students, 90 of them high schoolers, in Hartland, Wis. The school, which serves the sons and daughters of affluent lawyers, doctors, and executives, is set in

the middle of 100 acres of wilderness. From classroom windows, I would occasionally catch sight of a deer, a fox, a soaring hawk. It was a gloriously pristine setting, though my two years there, 1988-90, were anything but serene. I might have been inhabiting one of those fairy tales in which the characters are lost in the woods, for I never quite knew what I was doing--though I admitted that to no one. So much seemed to work backward, contrary to expectations. Classes for which I was most well-prepared would be the most stale, exhausting for me and the students. Classes for which I “winged it’’ would catch fire, a casual remark sometimes igniting a spark. Following the curriculum would lead to a dead end; departures would invigorate, like a jog through an unexplored landscape.

A decade earlier, at a school in Indianapolis where I had begun my teaching career, things had seemed to fall into place. I wielded my grammar book, my red pen, and my English literature anthology with authority. In 10 years, the only thing I had apparently achieved was uncertainty.

Over the years, I met teachers at conferences who seemed to know exactly what they were doing. These teachers amazed me. Did they possess some sort of methodological key? Were they simply “natural born’’ teachers? Or were they, for all their earnest confidence, in truth as uncertain as I was?

These teachers sometimes had a beatified glow about them, so cocksure were they about the efficacy of process writing, cooperative learning, whole language, and the like. It wasn’t that I disparaged any of these things; it was rather that, when I applied them, they seemed every bit as awkward and tentative as anything else I had ever tried. They didn’t diminish any of my uncertainty.

Once, I was teaching a poem with perhaps two dozen difficult allusions, some of which I did not understand myself. I was about to sort the students into cooperative learning groups--each group responsible for a certain number of allusions--when I had another simpler idea. I told them to find out the meaning of each of the allusions using any method they wanted: the library, a parent, a history teacher. It didn’t matter how they got their answers; it was impossible to cheat. If they could con one of their hard-working brethren to provide them with ready-made answers, that was fine. I didn’t have to know.

The next day, all of the students had all of the answers. They were full of smiles. I thought the experiment a great success, though now I’m not so sure. Maybe the smiles were, in truth, duplicitous grins, a collective smirking at a facetiously simple task.

This past summer, in an attempt to understand if not dispel my sense of uncertainty, I contacted a number of my former University Lake students, all of them 1990 graduates. In that class, there were 21 students, two-thirds of them boys. They had me for two years as an English teacher. We sometimes drove each other crazy. As a class, they struck me as unusually talented, nice kids. But they were somewhat spoiled, as well. They were accustomed to getting what they wanted, and they disliked--perhaps even more than most teenagers--being told what to do. It was a tug of war, and I sometimes tugged when I should have let go and let go when I should have tugged. Many of their parents could be described as nouveau riche and had a pragmatic view of education that conflicted with the faculty’s. I once overheard a mother, frustrated with her daughter’s lackluster grades, tell a fellow teacher that “there wasn’t going to be any new sailboat for that girl.’'

I wanted to learn from my former students what I on my own could not know: How valuable had they found their schooling? Was the work they had done truly meaningful? How significant were the relationships they had had with their teachers? What were the best and worst aspects of their high school education? And what, if anything, did they wish their teachers had done differently?

Not surprisingly, my own predictions of what students would say did not stand up very well. Students, for example, who had exuded discontent for University Lake now expressed gratitude for what the school had given them. The past, it seemed, was a story subject to constant revision.

Andy Saiia was an example of an apparently unhappy student who now expressed gratitude. Despite his obvious gifts as an artist, musician, and thinker, Saiia had sometimes appeared sullen to the point of despondency. (The caption under his yearbook photo reads, “Not happy unless depressed.’') He slouched in class and walked slowly down the hallways. During his senior year, he took my philosophy seminar, which, he told me on a number of occasions, he hated, though he could never say why.

“I was missing the point of that class and was completely frustrated,’' he told me when we met at the almost abandoned school this past summer. “I have to tell you, though, that I did learn a lot from that class, whether I enjoyed it or not, because I remembered it when I came across certain things later. Once, a professor was talking about the Platonic conception of something or other, and I remembered how you, when we were talking about Plato, put a chair in the middle of the room and asked what made the chair a chair. I also remembered the idea of a Socratic dialogue--the whole idea of not just asserting things but having a discussion to get at the truth.’'

Saiia, who had dropped out of several colleges and worked at a convenience store before finding satisfaction at a Milwaukee art institute where he is now a design student, traced his lifelong anxiety about school to a single incident back in kindergarten. The other kids were singing and playing “London Bridge,’' but he refused to participate. The teacher called his mother, telling her she feared her son was antisocial. “I know it sounds weird to put so much emphasis on something that happened so many years ago,’' he said, “but that’s when my fear of school started. I wasn’t a conformist, and, on an intuitive level, I knew, even then, that school was about conforming.’'

After a harrowing two years at a Catholic high school where students were force-fed textbooks, he transferred during his junior year to University Lake School. While fear of failure prevented him from exerting himself to the fullest, he insisted that he is profoundly indebted to his teachers, who “cared about the way I was thinking about something, not just that I learned a lot of information.’'

He singled out history teacher Valija Rasmussen for praise. “She made it clear that history was about interpretation, not just about who was fighting some war. She was the first one, I think, who taught me that writing was about connecting our own ideas with the material, not repackaging somebody else’s ideas. I remember writing an essay comparing ancient Rome with our own civilization and thinking, This must be what history is all about.’'

Saiia made a point that would later be amplified by so many of the other students that it became a kind of grand motif: namely, that students absorbed as much from teachers’ “off-the-cuff’’ remarks and idiosyncrasies as they did from the “official’’ curriculum. Here he mentioned David Bielot, a bearded hulk of an art teacher famous for his chronic cantankerousness. While students were working on art projects, Bielot would pace around the room, griping about everything from Reaganomics to the abysmal state of mass culture. “I learned a lot of important things just by listening to Mr. Bielot complain about the world,’' Saiia said. “Once, while he was complaining about something or other, he suddenly told us about this artist who was under attack for putting a crucifix in what appeared to be a jar of urine. Then he raised an intriguing question: Could such a thing ever be considered art? He just raised the question; he didn’t try to answer it.’'

Saiia was relaxed and reflective during our conversation, and after I put away my tape recorder, we continued to talk. “You know,’' he mused, “I wonder what would happen if a teacher just gave kids books with no expectations--if you just let them read the books and tell you what they think.’'

“But would they read the books?’' I asked.

“That’s the question,’' he said. “But I would say, ‘If you don’t want to read, fine, leave.’ Besides, if someone doesn’t want to learn, it’s not going to happen no matter what the teacher does. There’s no formula, no method.’'

Saiia had gotten up from his chair and was about to leave when he paused to ask me a question. “There’s something I’ve always been curious about: Are teachers just teaching or are they trying to learn something for themselves when they teach? I think this is an important question.’'

Are teachers trying to learn something for themselves when they teach? This seemed to be a crucial question, for it also was mentioned, however indirectly, time and time again by my former students. Their comments about favorite teachers being “engaged,’' “committed,’' and “intense’’ were not just recycled cliches; they indicated, rather, a realization that teachers they most admired worked with them on “ground level,’' wanting to discover along with their students what is important. They talked about physics teacher Mark Nowakowski “bringing out all kinds of stuff and playing with it,’' about history teacher Daniel McCarthy becoming so worked up during class discussions that he would end up soaked in perspiration even on the coldest days, and about math teacher Rick Peterson working with them on producing art posters based on complex geometrical patterns.

These teachers were able to interest their students, it seemed, not because they were entertainers or because they seduced and cajoled but because they were “co-learners.’' They were willing, as one student put it, “to get off the pedestal.’'

After Saiia left, I met with Alex Clar, a former student with a Grinch-like smile and a sense of humor that was acute if somewhat acerbic. In high school, Clar had dreams of attaining great wealth. His yearbook caption reads, “Divine wish is to get name in Forbes or to get indicted by the SEC.’' But now, having received his college degree, he was about to spend a year traveling in the Far East.

Clar complimented University Lake School for having prepared him well academically and then compared his experience there with advanced placement classes he’d observed for several days at another school as part of a college education course. “What I noticed,’' he said, “is that everything was much more rigid; the teachers felt they had to structure all the activities. There was a constant stream of handouts in which teachers set out exactly what they were going to do. If I remember correctly, it was a freer discussion at ULS; you teachers would come up with a discussion topic, and the students would throw out things. But at the public school I observed, discussions never got deep. The teacher would ask a question, but it was clear he already knew what the answer would be; it was an open-and-shut question. There were also quizzes every other day just to make sure that the reading was done.

“The teachers at ULS were eccentrics, even unstable,’' he laughed gleefully, “but from them we learned we couldn’t take what we read or saw at face value. I particularly learned this from [American history teacher] McCarthy, who kept asking us, ‘Why do you think that?’ ‘What’s the purpose of the writer writing like that?’ He questioned whatever opinions we had. We’d give our opinions, and he wouldn’t condemn or condone but would say, ‘Why?’ And then he’d give a counter-argument. He’d say to us, ‘OK, I’m going to play devil’s advocate now.’ Then he’d challenge us to defend our views, which often, as it turned out, were based on sheer bias.’'

I met with Carrie Grange, an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, in the UW student union. Like Clar, she lauded ULS for the pervasive atmosphere of intellectual challenge. Too many high schools, she said, patronize students by treating them as simpletons, incapable of dealing with intellectual complexity. This she had gleaned not from personal experience but from discussions with students from other schools.

Grange, who had taken a hiatus from her university studies to live in Israel, said college hadn’t been as difficult or as challenging as high school. In some ways, college had actually been a regression; it was so impersonal, with its vast lecture halls and the separation between students and professors. At ULS, students and teachers were inescapably close. While this created inevitable friction, it created intellectual excitement, too. “The teachers just didn’t care much about the hierarchy, the pecking order,’' she said. “They weren’t interested in talking at us and having us just sit around. Instead, they just kind of threw all different things at us and let us grapple with them. What we’d learn in history would, for instance, overlap with English class, so you’d see how the threads would come together. What I loved most about my classes was the flexibility, the sense that anything was fair game.’'

I flinched a bit when Grange talked about flexibility; as a teacher, I sometimes feared I was engendering disorder by “throwing’’ all different kinds of things at my students. As the years passed, I became, without any intention of becoming, almost haphazardly eclectic. It was, I think, purely a matter of impulse and intuition. More and more, I simply taught what I felt like teaching. One day, we’d be talking about a current movie, and the next day I’d bring in a movie review from The New Yorker. Once, on the spur of the moment, I decided to spend a few days having my students study several pages from Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents; for some unfathomable reason, I wanted my students then and there to understand the notion of sublimation. I always felt a bit guilty about this capriciousness, wondering if I was depriving my students of the kind of deep understanding a more formal, systematic presentation of material might bring. When the headmaster asked teachers to prepare a detailed scope and sequence, I felt downright fraudulent, knowing I would never follow it.

The sense that the curriculum at University Lake School was a rather intriguing grab bag patched together by rather eccentric individuals was shared by many of the students. But this was almost universally perceived as a good thing. If the teachers followed their interests and those of the students, how could the curriculum be anything but in never-ending transition?

“Going to ULS was one of the best things I ever did for myself,’' said Dalynn Wade, whom I visited at his parents’ home in Milwaukee’s inner city. “It didn’t even seem like a school, it was so different. The teachers were offbeat, weird, but highly analytical. You had to learn how to pick up and criticize someone’s main point. Never at the public schools I attended before ULS did anyone teach me how to do that. But they taught that at ULS, and it’s stayed with me. My brain works differently because of it. I’ll listen to the news or just someone talking in the street and understand what they’re really saying--the message behind the message.’'

Wade, who has been sporadically attending the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee as finances permit, said it wasn’t easy being the only African-American student in a school of wealthy whites. He always felt as if he were supposed to be “the black representative,’' called upon to express “the black point of view.’' But the difficulties he had at ULS paled beside those he was having these days in his dangerous neighborhood. Drugs, and the money and insidious excitement surrounding them, were constant temptations. When he was a kid, he and his friends had crab-apple fights; now there were gun battles right up the street. A few of his friends were in prison, others dead.

This lament seemed to make Wade nostalgic for his high school days. “A lot of learning went on there behind those trees,’' he said. “The teachers were smart, especially McCarthy. I’ve never had a better teacher, before or after ULS. He taught me not to take all I read as fact.’'

I told Wade that I remembered a heated dispute he had once had with McCarthy over an essay he had written.

“Yeah, but you can’t take any of that stuff personally,’' Wade said. “The point is that he was never intimidated by me at all. He just showed me what was wrong and how to fix it.’'

Many students, even those who had little interest in the humanities, mentioned McCarthy as a teacher who had a positive and lasting influence upon them. This was understandable, for McCarthy had some remarkable gifts. For one thing, he had an uncanny ability to expatiate upon a topic at great length, in the process welding seemingly conflicting ideas into a grand synthesis. One student told me that when McCarthy expounded upon a topic with the feverish intensity he sometimes generated, she virtually forgot she was in the classroom, so mesmerized was she by his talk. “It was like I was inside of his head,’' she said. “Outside of myself.’'

McCarthy was warm and charismatic, too. Chitchatting and joking with students in the hallways or cafeteria were easy for him, and he developed lasting personal relationships with some students.

But McCarthy, we faculty knew, also infuriated students as perhaps no other teacher did. He was impulsive, tempestuous, and if his students were unprepared or indifferent, he would lash out or sometimes simply storm out of his classroom, refusing to teach. This was no act designed to motivate; he was truly furious, and I remember him, face flushed, pacing about the faculty lounge, wondering aloud if teaching were truly worth it. He alternately scared the hell out of students and enraged them. Tara Sander, now a lab technician who hopes to go to medical school, said she would often be fuming after McCarthy’s class. “I remember walking out of there absolutely furious on a number of occasions. We resented the pressure he put on us.’'

This said, she quickly added that she had been greatly impressed by the broad range of things she had to learn in McCarthy’s class and the intensity with which she had to learn them. “He really made you think,’' she said. “Demanding as he was, he made you come to your own conclusions. It wasn’t like one of those courses that are so structured you just learn the system and get a handle on it.’'

The more I listened to the students talk, the more I realized they were willing to forgive a teacher almost anything--foibles, tantrums, inconsistencies--if that teacher evidenced a transcendent concern for the learning of his or her students. Moodiness, rashness, peevishness could be absolved as long as there was nothing counterfeit about the teacher’s commitment to the students.

Alex Clar, the student with the Grinch-like grin, perhaps put it best. “McCarthy,’' he said, “just got really unhappy when he felt the class wasn’t learning anything. He’d get really upset. I was really impressed by that. His discontent actually created a high level of respect because it conveyed a feeling that he really cared.’'

Once, after Clar had been particularly supercilious over a number of days, McCarthy and I pulled him into an empty classroom and told him we’d had enough; it was time for him to “cool it.’' Clar surprised me by weeping, and I felt afterward that we had bullied him. Did he remember that encounter? He said he did and that he had been resentful over it for some time. Clar hesitated and then mentioned another time I had “nailed’’ him. “Before class, when you were out of the room, I wrote, ‘Rodgers-Hammerstein presents Rapunzel-Ruenzel’ on the chalkboard, along with a cartoon of you in a wig. You walked in, got furious, and gave me a work detail on the spot. I thought your reaction was harsh because it was intended as friendly kidding, not as an insult.’'

I told Clar I had but a hazy recollection of the incident, which surprised him since it had disturbed both him and his classmates, and it took some time before the bitterness dissipated.

Clar began to go on, paused, and then asked if he could speak frankly.

“Of course,’' I said.

“With you, more than with any other teacher, there seemed to be a dilemma as to the amount of distance you felt you should keep as an authority figure interacting with his students.’'

“Too much distance?’' I asked.

“Not exactly. It was more like you were uncertain as to how much distance you should have. Sometimes it seemed that there was the kind of friction you might get between officers and underlings; you thought kids were taking too many liberties. You had a problem, I felt, deciding the level of interaction you should have with us. The distance wavered; you’d be hard-assed, or you’d let things slide.

“Students had particularly strong opinions of you and McCarthy, pro and con, and even now I’m sure they have strong feelings. They’d say, ‘Ruenzel was really good,’ or ‘I really hated Ruenzel.’ ''

Hearing this stung a bit. What Clar had said was true, though I never thought of it quite that way. University Lake School was a small school where casual relationships between students and teachers were common, and I was never quite comfortable with that. (I had, after all, cut my teaching teeth at a very formal college preparatory school.) Shamefully, I remembered how I had once asked a disrespectful student to leave my classroom. When she momentarily refused, I threatened to bring in the headmaster.

But Clar was generously forgiving.

“We students,’' he said, “as irritated as we sometimes were, realized we weren’t just taking a class. We were taking a Ruenzel or McCarthy class, getting the full-packaged flavor. So even though some may have had some strong feelings against you, they still got something out of it. It was a common experience coming out of your class that someone would have something strongly negative or positive to say. But in terms of whether we learned something, the answer was a definite yes. You threw out a lot of strange, interesting ideas that got our attention. The negative part was when you tried to rein things in, to gain control--to make it clear to the class that you were the authority.

“You guys always kept me off-balance, on my toes. I liked your classes, I really liked them.’' Clar chuckled, his grin at full mast. “But you guys were really different.’'

Finding out how others really perceive you can be painfully unwise. Nevertheless, for all of its inherent discomfort, listening to others talk about you is undeniably enlightening. As my former students, without solicitation, talked about their perceptions of me and my class, I had the strange sensation of looking at an old photograph of someone much younger and clumsier. “That can’t be me,’' you think. But then you look closer and see that it is indeed you, flaws and all.

Students, I kept thinking during our conversations, know more about us teachers than we think. But their perceptions, acute as they were, didn’t much diminish my sense of uncertainty. Just how good a teacher I was depended upon whom I talked to.

Tara Sander, the lab technician, said, “I’m so glad to hear from you because I know you were the best English teacher I ever had. I learned so much from you, and I remember you constantly pushing me to improve my writing.’' Others praised me for teaching good writing skills and maintaining a high level of classroom discussion. But it was impossible to stay flattered for long. Others clearly felt otherwise, though they exercised tact. Two students, for example, enumerated all the teachers they admired, the list including almost everyone but me. Another student offered a perspective undoubtedly shared by others when he said, “I’m not sure teachers are really that important to students. I think students are important to each other.’'

I still don’t know just how effective I was as a teacher and perhaps never will. There are countless intangibles in the life of any teacher. Almost invisibly, as unremarkable days and months pass, relationships with students flourish or erode, making it difficult for the teacher to see just how well things are going at any given moment. It is hard to mark a spot in the road when the road itself shifts and swerves underfoot.

But I do know now that I would have been a better teacher had I been able to accept uncertainty, which I now perceive as the nature of teaching. Every mistake I made--the meaningful ones, not flaws in presentation or organization--had to do with my attempt to rescue teaching from the necessary morass of uncertainty, to place teaching upon a bedrock that must always crumble to sand. I wish I had realized when I taught what I think I understand now: that uncertainty is not shoddiness but is in fact surprise, insight, epiphany--all the things that are the lifeblood of genuine teaching. When students praised their teachers’ intensity, their passion, I think they were in truth praising the teachers’ ability to surrender themselves to the unpredictable moment.

Eric Stein was the closest thing University Lake had to a school radical. He liked to dress--as much as one could within the confines of the dress code--in punk garb and proudly announced that he was an anarchist. He published a sort of underground newspaper which, as I recall, was both clever and somewhat obscene. As with Clar, I had my run-ins with him and was surprised when he expressed regret for a long-ago incident: He had laughed while I read one of my own poems to the class. “I was way out of line,’' he told me during our conversation at UW-Madison, where he had just finished up a degree in anthropology and philosophy. “What I did was very offensive, and I remember it to this day. I was incredibly rude, though I didn’t realize it at the time.’'

I would have figured Stein as one of the students who would be most critical of his high school experience, but this wasn’t the case at all. Although at the time he had felt suffocated by the smallness of the school--everyone was into everyone else’s business--he said he now greatly appreciated the small classes and the teachers’ attentiveness. “Teachers paid close attention to what I was doing so that I couldn’t get away with being sloppy,’' he explained. “You were intense, and I really appreciated that. Going to ULS and respecting my teachers has made me want to become a teacher myself.’'

Like Wade, Stein sounded nostalgic. He spoke with an almost wistful gentleness that made me wonder if I had ever really known him. “Everything here at the university is politically correct. Suddenly, we’re no longer talking about the gatekeeper at the end of The Trial but about the feminist themes behind such and such a book. I’ve never been asked my opinion about a given work; basically, it’s tear this down and tear that down until there’s nothing left. I wish there’d be someone you could have a conversation with on his or her own free time.’'

“If you had to do it over again, would you go to ULS?’' I asked.

“I’d do it again, for eternity,’' he said, and for a moment I felt the same way about my two very short years there.

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Past Imperfect


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