Curriculum Opinion

Bartleby, Savitri, & Me

By Sam Swope — December 22, 2004 12 min read
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The woman I’ll call Savitri Pathak labored somewhere in the vast labyrinth of the New York City Department of Education. I never laid eyes on her. Our only contact was by phone and e-mail. Because her duties included approving professional development programs, I was her supplicant. About a year ago, I’d been named the first dean of the New York Public Library Summer Seminars for High School English Teachers, and I wanted our participants to receive professional development credits.

Thanks to my days teaching immigrant kids in Queens, I recognized Savitri’s name as Indian. Was she an immigrant, too? If so, what strange path had brought her from India to the city’s education department? Did she wear a sari? Was she homesick, as my students’ mothers had been?

Author and educator Sam Swope.

I never had a chance to ask these questions, though. From the first, Savitri’s manner was professional, and I stuck to the matter at hand.

My job as dean was part time, my place of employment the New York Public Library’s grand and columned edifice on Fifth Avenue, the one flanked by a famous pair of stone lions. The building is palatial, and its polished marble floors, towering ceilings, and regal stairways made me feel simultaneously exalted and puny. Every day, I’d shake my head in disbelief: I worked in one of the world’s great repositories of human history and thought, a library housing millions of books, manuscripts, photographs, prints, maps, and untold curiosities related to the history of letters.

My corner of the library was behind a large pair of doors, above which was emblazoned “Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.” The center is an elegantly modern suite of offices surrounding a pleasant lounge with tables, chairs, and sofas. During the academic year, these offices are occupied by distinguished scholars and creative writers who have won fellowships that allow them to devote 10 months to research, writing, and getting to know one another in a congenial setting.

The offices, however, weren’t being used in the summer, so the Cullman Center’s new director, Jean Strouse, decided this past year to open them for the first time to high school English teachers in the metropolitan area. Because my career as a writer and writing instructor (kindergarten through graduate school) had given me broad acquaintance with New York City schools and their employees, she hired me to help design the pilot program.

As I explained to Savitri during our first conversation, we’d modeled our program on the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s seminars for teachers, held each summer at various colleges and universities, and the Bread Loaf School of English, a summer graduate school at Middlebury College in Vermont. Both offer excellent programs in which teachers are taught by gifted academics and writers, and both are collegial experiences that give educators, usually isolated in classrooms, a chance to learn from, and befriend, colleagues.

“Each seminar will be a week long,” I told Savitri. “Each week, we’ll have 14 teachers. Every morning, there will be a three-hour college-style seminar. One will be led by Andrew Delbanco of Columbia University. He’ll teach Melville’s short fiction and his short novel, Billy Budd. The other will be led by novelist Donald Antrim, who will teach literature of the fantastic, including Frankenstein, A Clockwork Orange, and short stories by Edgar Allan Poe and Donald Barthelme.”

“It sounds wonderful,” Savitri said.

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The afternoons, I continued, would be jampacked. The teachers would learn how to use the library’s online resources, and they’d visit the many special collections, where they’d see, for example, original manuscripts penned by the likes of Dickens, Hardy, Yeats, and Woolf; rare first editions; and fascinating old maps relating to works they were studying.

“What a wonderful opportunity,” she responded.

“What’s more,” I added, “each teacher will get an office with a computer, a stipend of $300, all their books will be paid for, and we’ll serve them breakfast and lunch.”

Savitri saw no reason why our program wouldn’t be approved. Happy to have won her over, I felt a sudden fondness for her, and now I found myself imagining her as young and elegantly dressed, her large brown eyes glowing with intelligence.

I asked, “What do I need to do to get our teachers professional development credits?”

Of course, there were procedures, Savitri replied. A formal proposal would have to be submitted. She’d send instructions via e-mail.

My heart sank. Procedures? Instructions? I’d naively assumed our program was so wonderful that approval would be granted immediately. But I bit my tongue, swallowed hard, and said, “Of course”—not realizing just how complicated the procedures would be, or how the best-laid plans for the new program would have to change.

Savitri’s instructions came by e-mail and were long and involved. Through the years, I’ve noticed that two distinct languages are spoken in the world of education. One of them, plain and direct, is the language of the classroom, which teachers use to communicate with students. The other, used by academics and policymakers, bears a resemblance to English but is mostly incomprehensible. At best, its speakers use ridiculously large words to describe simple ideas; at worst, they use ridiculously large words to describe nonsense.

Despite my loathing of this language, I figured our proposal should at least echo it, so we declared, for example, that our program would “deepen teachers’ content knowledge” and “provide teachers with instructional strategies to assist students in meeting rigorous academic standards.”

You aren’t likely to find the word ‘passion’ in the language of standards for professional development.

Finishing our 10-page proposal took a library colleague and me the better part of a day and was a deadening affair to which we could bring none of the joy and creativity we’d brought to creating the program itself. But never mind—the thing was done.

Some days later, we received Savitri’s response. Changes were required, but what exactly she needed wasn’t clear.

I telephoned Savitri and tried to hide my irritation. I said I’d happily make revisions, but suggestions were in order. I asked, “Why must this process be so confusing? You agree we have a good program. How would you describe it? What words are needed here? Could someone in your office please just walk me through this?”

Savitri said no, no one was available to do that. She was the only one.

This came as a shock. In a system like New York City’s, with 77,000 teachers, Savitri was the only administrator who knew how to prepare such a document? How could the education department do that to her, or to me?

Feeling suddenly sympathetic, I said, “You must be overwhelmed with work. I’m sorry to bother you like this, but I don’t know what to do here. Please help.”

“Call me tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock,” she said.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

I called at 10 the next day, but Savitri was on the phone. I left a message, sent an e-mail. When she didn’t respond, I called again, but Savitri was in a meeting. I left a message, sent an e-mail. No response. I tried again, but she’d stepped away from her desk. I left a message, sent an e-mail.

Since childhood, I’ve suffered from two weaknesses: I don’t like being told no, and I don’t like being ignored. My blood began to boil. Savitri Pathak, odious and obstructive bureaucrat! How dare she say no to my program! How dare she waste my time! How dare she deny my teachers credits! In my irritation, my mental image of her altered. She aged, her face grew hard and pinched. She bit her nails and wore a fraying suit and ugly shoes.

But you can’t stay mad forever. Eventually, I gave up phoning and e-mailing. Other matters required my attention. We’d have to do without professional development credits this year.

The seminars took place in July. Our teachers, who’d given up a week of their summer vacations, were an interesting mix of gray-haired veterans, educators in mid-career, and idealistic beginners. Most were from public schools, but a few taught in parochial or private institutions. All were in love with literature and thrilled to be students again, sitting around discussing books.

One of them was Joe McAndrew. Joe’s a short, barrel-chested, outspoken man in his 60s. For 26 years, he’s been teaching at Long Island City High School, which is overcrowded and huge. He told me most of his students didn’t read—they just wouldn’t do it—and the only way he could get them to experience Billy Budd, Melville’s maritime morality tale of innocence wronged, was to read it aloud to them, page by page, day after day. Eventually, he told us, his students got into it. And I believed him. I bet the sight of an old guy’s passion for a novel was something they’ll never forget.

Then there was Bill O’Brien, a towering middle-age man with a commanding voice, who taught at Fort Hamilton High in Brooklyn. Bill complained that his department bought class sets of a contemporary bestseller even though he didn’t have enough copies of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. When I asked whether his students would read Twain, he cried, “I want them at least to have been in the same room when a great book was taught!”

New York public library.

Passion like this is the match that lights a fire in kids, yet you aren’t likely to find the word “passion” in the language of standards for professional development. And this disconnect between learning and policy isn’t confined to secondary schools. Professor Delbanco, our Melville instructor, said that when he got to Harvard University, his mentor told him, “You have two things to do in graduate school. One is to get a PhD, the other is to get an education; and the two have almost nothing to do with each other.”

At the same time, a teacher’s passion can be suffocating. If the seminars had gone according to plan, something amazing wouldn’t have happened. I was so in love with the library, I’d wanted to cram our afternoons with library-related activities, and I’d listed them all in our proposal to Savitri. For various reasons, though, we’d had to scale back. True enough, the teachers would still see treasures every day, but only for an hour or so, and that left several hours unscheduled each afternoon. I feared disaster. What would the participants do?

Unaccustomed to freedom, many teachers during the initial seminar were indeed lost, at least in the beginning. A teacher’s life is so programmed and structured, every minute so accounted for, that they didn’t know what was expected of them, and on the first afternoon, some hid in their offices, feeling guilty. But by the second day, realizing they could use the library however they saw fit, the teachers got to work. They researched authors, explored the stacks, investigated the online resources, and sat in the lounge talking shop.

With grateful amazement, they told me, “You treat us like professionals. This never happens.”

I didn’t deserve their praise. This free time had happened by accident, although I should have known better. How could I have underestimated them? After all, I’m happiest as a classroom teacher when my students are directing their own work. Why should I feel different when my students are teachers?

On the first morning of our Melville seminar, Claire Paccione, who teaches at Wellington C. Mepham High School on Long Island, asked Delbanco, “How do we make Melville matter to our students?” Delbanco winced, keenly aware of how most people viewed the author he loved, and with a world-weary sigh, he said, “Teaching sometimes feels like a losing battle, but losing battles are the ones worth fighting.” Then he held up his copy of the text we’d discuss that day, saying, “But if we can’t make ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ matter to our students, we might as well throw in the towel.”

‘Teaching sometimes feels like a losing battle, but losing battles are the ones worth fighting,’ Columbia University Professor Andrew Delbanco told the teachers with a world-weary sigh.

There was general agreement on this point. “Bartleby” is Melville’s most accessible text and has the additional virtue (from a high school teacher’s point of view) of being relatively short. It’s narrated by a lawyer who hires Bartleby to be his scrivener and copy out his legal documents by hand. The job, the narrator admits, is “a very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair.” One day, the lawyer asks Bartleby to copy something, and he replies, “I would prefer not to.” The lawyer, a kind soul, sympathetically indulges his employee, but gradually Bartleby prefers to do less and less, until finally he won’t do anything at all. He even prefers not to be fired or vacate the premises. Bartleby just stares out the office window at the wall opposite, and the poor lawyer doesn’t know what to do.

There was a lively discussion about the story and the limits of human compassion. What could be done with Bartleby? The teachers pointed out parallels between him and students who prefer not to learn, and they also saw similarities between the meaningless grind required of Bartleby and their own situation as teachers in a test-driven world.

As I listened to them discuss “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Savitri, the Bureaucrat, came to mind, and I had a wild thought. Perhaps I’d misjudged her. Perhaps her silence meant she’d had some sort of breakdown. I pictured her dressed in gray, hair tied neatly into a bun, hands clasped behind her back as she stood staring out her office window for days on end. I imagined her secretary, with growing concern, asking if she’d take the latest call. But Savitri would only reply, “I would prefer not to.”

During the last day of our seminars, something remarkable happened: A large envelope arrived in the mail from Savitri’s office. There was no cover letter, but our program, apparently, had been approved after all, for here were explanatory documents and time sheets and teacher evaluations and report forms, all of which would have to be filled out so that our teachers could get their credits. I was touched. Oh, Savitri, you poor, overworked soul, hamstrung by edicts, you really did want to do the right thing!

At the same time, it didn’t seem ethical to accept them. Our original proposal had described afternoons that would be chockablock with guided activities, activities we’d had to cancel, leaving us with all that wonderful free time. But how could I explain the value of this to Savitri? What standard applies to the notion that teachers can be trusted to know best what they need?

On that final afternoon, the teachers and I gathered in the lounge to review the program. I was eager to hear how our seminars might be improved. “Make them longer,” they suggested. “Otherwise, don’t change a thing.”

I wondered if we should have some culminating activity—ask next year’s teachers to come up with lesson plans, for example. The teachers fairly screamed out, “No!” They said the joy of the seminar was being a scholar, of not having to think like a teacher. They loved doing their own research. The library was an oasis, and the experience was a chance to recuperate from the rigors of the school year and remember why they’d wanted to be teachers in the first place.

Then I described my ordeal with Savitri and asked whether the paperwork was worth the professional development credits they’d get. They all said it wasn’t. They worried that bureaucratic requirements would do to the seminars what standards-based testing had done to their English classrooms and would take the joy out of the experience.

I sighed with relief, filed Savitri’s forms away, and never looked at them again.

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