Literary Ammunition

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In the hands of this English teacher, poetry was a weapon of destruction.

I don't know if the academic statute of limitations has run out, but I want to confess anyway. One day in the early 1960s, in my high school junior English classes, I was busily and enthusiastically mugging the spirit of Christmas. The weapon I was using was Howard Nemerov's poem "Santa Claus." To compound my felony, the poem wasn't even in one of our textbooks. I had gone to the trouble of typing the text on a ditto stencil and running off more than a hundred copies, one for every student.

For the first two periods that day, I was proud of myself. I had generated lively and wide-ranging discussions eliciting and expanding on Nemerov's points about the hypocrisy and materialism of Christmas. We even took some healthy swipes at the local merchants and the holiday trappings along our main drag. No spiritualism there, just the ringing of cash register bells and exhortations to buy, buy, buy! The old, pre-ghostly visitations Scrooge would have been proud of me. All I neglected to do was end each lesson with a student chorus of: "Bah! Humbug!"

But, in the end, I was the one who got a painful lesson. Sometime in the middle of my third class of the day, when I had adroitly led the kids through my well- planned yuletide hatchet job, I noticed that a boy in the middle row was visibly fuming. Even though he hadn't raised his hand, the scowl on his face prompted me to call on him and ask what he thought of Nemerov's point. His response, however, was not about the poet but about me. "Can't you leave anything alone? Do you have to destroy everything?" he snarled through tightened lips. He then went on to say that for him and his family, Christmas was a happy time of joyous get-togethers, something that he genuinely looked forward to.

My response, fortunately, is lost to posterity, but I do remember thinking that he was right, that my nihilistic lesson plan was hopelessly out of balance. More important, his response left me with a lingering question: Was I, so noble and humane in my intentions (or so I thought), really out to "destroy everything"?

The charge stuck with me, and, as I chewed on it for the next several days, I even added to the indictment while teaching another class. Again we were discussing a poem, this time by Peter Viereck, about a father and son who, during a rural walk, come upon a fence surrounding a mental institution. The boy wants to know why the people on the other side got so sick that they had to be locked up. Dad knows the answer, something about the lack of "love."

Was I, so noble and humane in my intentions (or so I thought), really out to destroy everything?

That was my cue, and I pushed the question of how much love could the unfortunates hope to get in the barren world behind the cyclone fence. But one young girl was wise to my dodge. "You want us to say that mental institutions aren't any good," she said.

Of course, I denied it all. I didn't want them to say anything that wasn't what they really thought. I just wanted them to think for themselves. And, I admit now, I was lying. The truth is, I was picking up on the lack-of-love idea and using it as a stick to beat up on institutions I knew absolutely nothing about. Had I gotten my students to read something about conditions in mental hospitals, or about the sources of mental and emotional problems, my approach might have had some merit. But what I was actually doing was promoting an intellectually dishonest, mindless negativism-in other words, trying to "destroy everything."

And what the girl's shrewd comment made me finally realize was that most of the kids saw through me. They knew what I wanted in our discussions and generally played up to my point of view. For most, there was probably no real reflection involved; they just mouthed what the authority figure wanted to hear. A good grade was a lot more important than intellectual integrity. My approach was as much a preparation for George Orwell's version of the year 1984 as it was for participatory democracy.

But a more important question remains: Where did a gentle, altruistic soul like me get the idea that this was what teaching English was all about? After all, back then I was a neophyte, honestly looking for whatever guidance in lesson planning I could get. Certainly no one ever told me to do what I was doing.

In his book The Elizabethan World Picture, E. M. W. Tillyard writes that some of the most important values of any time period are rarely articulated or discussed because they are tacitly accepted as the assumptions by which people live. So, in my defense, lame though it may sound, the bulldog-attack approach to English teaching was "in the air" in the '60s, an assumption we didn't much talk about. Once in a while it obliquely surfaced; for example, a much-admired senior colleague said at lunch one day that he would consider himself a successful teacher if he got his students to become regular readers of the Nation or the New Republic (which Alfred Kazin once said "was not merely a publication but a cause"). All of us at the table recognized and approved of his anti-establishment agenda.

Some of the most important values of any time period are rarely articulated or discussed because they are tacitly accepted as the assumptions by which people live.

Back then, by one criterion at least, a successful lesson was one that generated the liveliest discussion with the broadest participation. Works of literature were often just jumping-off points to meaty (and firmly directed) "discussions" on hot social issues. It was important for the kids to have opinions, without too much analysis of what made one opinion more valid than another.

During classroom observations, supervisors in those days began by making diagrams of the rooms in their notes, including each of the 35 seats. They would then check off how many kids raised their hands and participated and how often. A low number meant a negative comment on the report that went into a teacher's permanent file. So the bottom line was that a "good" textbook selection, by our standards, had little to do with literary merit. Rather, it was all about stirring up the kids, the more incendiary the better.

Well, not quite-for me, at least. In my defense, I didn't buy everything that came my way. I remember one article in the New York City Board of Education publication High Points. It was an English teacher's report on his "model" lesson on Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach." There was nothing in his approach about the Victorian crisis of faith, about the fuss swirling around Darwin, or about the outraged Anglican bishops, or even about those forces in our own society that might challenge the spiritual beliefs of students and their families. Instead, the aim of the lesson was to lead the class into a criticism of the United States' Vietnam policy. After all, the poet did mention "ignorant armies." Obviously, that was enough to get the pot boiling.

The tragic terrorist explosion in Oklahoma City has heightened our awareness of the potent, mindless negativism that possesses a disturbing number of our fellow citizens, from self-styled militias to gangsta rappers to the perpetrators of pseudo-historical films about government conspiracies. Historians down the road will probably ask themselves how the greatest and freest society that ever existed could produce such intense, self-destructive irrationality. They might find at least a small part of the answer in the lesson plans of a young English teacher just starting out.

Vol. 12, Issue 5, Pages 48-50

Published in Print: February 1, 2001, as Literary Ammunition
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