Monday, February 14, 2011

The Best Teacher

Like many other American high schools, mine was a hodgepodge of old and new buildings. The original three-story cream brick structure dated from the early 20th century. The town outgrew that building and cobbled on a whole new addition in the early 1960's, trebling the capacity. They added brand new sports facilities after I left in 1978. I recently looked at the Google Maps footprint of the high school and it's unrecognizable to me now.

Back in the late 1970's, the first and third floors of the original core building were mostly offices and storage. The second floor was still used for teaching--but only for English, foreign languages and some history classes--subjects that didn't require modern science or shop facilities. That's where I had a thoroughly memorable semester of English Literature taught by Mr. Van Lanen.

Mr. V's classes met on the second floor in the old building. His voluminous room--with its creaky old wooden floor and a ceiling high enough to hang light fixtures--perfectly suited his old fashioned (classical?) emphasis on learning through participation. The whole south-facing wall of his classroom was completely windowed with multi-paned sliding windows. Fenestration like that was endangered even then. The school district considered only the heat loss index of such windows and not any warmth and light they passed onto the students. Already in the offices on the other floors, such windows had been plywood-paneled down to a tiny square where an air conditioner hung as the only connection between indoors and out. 

Mr. V had a ruddy complexion and wisps of red-gone-white hair sparsely covered his head (he must have been around 50 then). He wore gold-rimmed spectacles and kept his hair slightly longer than most men his age. He also wore a moustache. He carried himself with a supple--almost athletic--agility. We heard rumors that he had been a running back at Marquette University in his college days. He wasn't a particularly large man for a running back, but it was easy to imagine him outrunning his opponents. It was his methods and manner though that were most memorable.

He certainly taught differently than other teachers--at least ones that I had had up to then. For starters, he arranged all the wooden desks into a semi-circle, so as not to encourage favorites. We were all equal to him and were all equally liable for discussion. And did he stress discussion! I took him for Prose Lit. the last semester of my senior year after I had belatedly thought it a good idea to go to college.

From the very beginning, as soon as he learned our names, he was calling on us to analyze and discuss our reading assignments. Some dreaded this and wished themselves less visible, but he'd make it all the worse for them—they were the ones who would get called on the most. I recall once discussing a passage of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons And Lovers. Mr. V. read aloud:
...there was a jenny wren’s nest in the hedge by the orchard…He crouched down and carefully put his finger through the thorns into the round door of the nest. ‘It’s almost as if you were feeling inside the live body of the bird, it’s so warm.'
He stopped reading, looked up and aimed a question at one of the shyest girls in class: “Now Julie, what would a Freudian say about that?" She blushed and fell silent. Birds twittered outside the open windows and we heard traffic two blocks away on University Avenue until at long last a more outspoken student raised his hand to answer. That sort of Socratic methodology made him some enemies amongst other students. I have a distinct recollection of some calling him a pervert--what with the way he threatened traditional values having us read Camus’s existentialism and John Barth’s nihilism. But they forgot that he equally taught us the beautiful language of Shakespeare and Brontë, the styles of Hemingway and Lawrence, numerous poems & short stories, and even two books of the Bible. Yeah they forgot all about that.

He made us open up. The whole semester was themed "Love" but he encouraged us to talk and discuss anything in class that pertained to literature: love and hate, men and women, life and death, good and evil -- all the usual "heavy" stuff for high school literature. I suppose that some of us were starved for conversation because we sure weren't getting that stuff at home.

Mr. V was like an inquisitor, but when someone was on fire with ideas, he would sit back with his arms folded across his chest, his head cocked to one side, grinning, just knowing he was partly responsible.
“It’s like Heathcliff’s soul just took off out the window to be with Cathy and he just left his cold body behind” somebody said. “Yeah, that’s what I thought too” said another.
He pushed us too. When one person said something worth discussing and our faces sat mute, he’d cup his hands around his mouth and feign a PA loudspeaker voice to make the one student's point, to bring us all a bit closer together and onto the same page.  He'd keep asking each of us one-by-one what we were thinking until each of us picked up on something our own. He loved to stir the pot. That’s the way it went the whole semester. I suppose that to him we were not buckets to be filled but little fires to be lit.*

The school board tried to dismiss him a few years later. Not for what or how he taught but for his union activities of all things. Apparently he refused to back down on some negotiation with the district. I was not privy to the details. I did go back to my high school one evening while in college in Madison to attend one of the public hearings and to show him support. To me, the union activities were not the issue—it was the threat to the best teacher that the school had. The hearings never got anywhere. They did take his space though. Some years later, they razed the entire the old building and raised a newer more energy efficient wing instead.
*The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled

I am grateful to commenter named MamaM at Trooper York's blog for inspiring me to seek out the Plutarch quote and to apply it here. link


  1. It's very difficult to find a teacher or professor who will inspire students to think critically or move them to expand their vision. Naturally such a man will run afoul of the status quo.

  2. "...such a man will run afoul of the status quo."

    He also runs the risk of igniting something larger, more powerful or more intense than may have seemed possible or even prudent at the time. A risk often run with little to no immediate evidence other than a wisp of smolder or glint of spark.

    What did the 6th grade teacher who holds the number 1 spot in my memory do to earn it?

    He required a book report or essay to be turned in each week on a rotating basis, with the option to substitute an original poem in place of either. Feeling like I was gaming the system and winning, I proceeded to write and turn in poem after poem, week after week. Doing so provided practice and allowed me the experience of freedom within format. I continue to this day to enjoy the challenge of fitting thoughts into a set form.

    The other thing he did that mattered, was give up part of his free time in the lounge with other teachers to play games at noon hour with our class outdoor. Although he annoyed some of the boys by insisting football be played with a smaller sized plastic football, which he said was easier to catch, and baseball with a larger sized red rubber ball, which he said was easier to hit, everyone played together, boys and girls alike with him running the show. I can still remember where I (a quiet, non-athletic, poetry writing bookworm) was standing the day I caught the football he'd thrown to me and ran it into the end zone for a touchdown. It was a great, one of a kind feeling, made possible by a teacher who knew how to lead and encourage.

    Thank you for your story, note and link, Chickelit. I did not know Plutarch was the original author but prefer his use of the words mind, vessel and kindle.

  3. Thank you for your story, note and link, Chickelit.

    You're welcome. And thanks for the touchdown story!