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Paying It Forward: Further Thoughts on Why We (or at least some of us may) Teach


In my last post I suggested that a powerful motivation for some teachers seems to have been a desire to “correct” the teaching that they themselves experienced. I probably implied, without meaning to, that this is a sole impetus for those “restitutional” teachers, as if they were only driven by a desire to fix the teaching thing, at least for their own students.  

I realize that this isn’t quite fair, and, like most human endeavor, the motivations for most of us are complicated and manifold. 

As much, for example, as I have been pleased to work for many years in an environment that seems to offer an antidote to some of my own experiences, I am also aware of and grateful to the many fine teachers that I had and whose efforts, and occasionally whose style, I have hoped to emulate, in some way to continue or carry forward the gift that they gave me. If restitution is a powerful motivator, so is what might be called paying it forward. There are moments when I realize that my career has been a poor tribute to many of those who taught me.

In my public elementary school this includes some of my homeroom teachers (I’ve written elsewhere that, c. 1956, Southside Elementary School in East Aurora, New York, looped first and second grades; Miss Garrett was my lucky draw for those years) and especially the art teacher, Mrs. Jost, who encouraged me to follow my interest as far as I could; Mrs. Larrison thought I could sing and hoped I might pick up the violin, although history will have disappointed her in both respects. Miss Brock was a rookie third-grade teacher who saw me through a very tough personal year by simply being who she was. The veteran Mrs. Boldt was the platonic ideal of a fifth-grade teacher; she treated us all with enormous respect and taught with equally enormous compassion and the common sense born of her other life as a dairy farm wide, up with the cows long before school opened and responsible for charges far more needy even than a bunch of ten year-olds. “Arithmetic” classes in grades five and six were homogeneous, and Miss Reali taught us such marvels as Zeno’s Paradox and lattice multiplication to get my fifth-grade group excited about math. (In writing this I discover that I also remember the first names of most of these teachers, but in respect I name them here as I called them back in the Eisenhower era.)

Junior high, off in the independent day school in the nearby city, wasn’t that different, although a couple of serious clinkers inspired the more restitutional aspects of my future work. But Mr. Ohler, who later proved to be a veritable Socrates when it came to encouraging slightly older teenagers to think for themselves, badgered me in seventh grade to read the sports and comic pages and be a bit more human, or at least well rounded, in my outlook on popular culture. Mr. Herlan—still a Facebook friend, by gosh!—taught that iron discipline could sustain a certain amount of ironic humor. Mr. Gurney’s foray into teaching from the law may have had mixed results for him, but the debates and mock trials we created in that class, chaotic as it may have looked to him and his supervisors, was one of the great learning experiences of my life. Mr. Hayes gave the enduring gift of Latin, which I am teaching these days in small doses, and equally enduring memory of a tall and serious man in dignified middle age leading cheers of “Let’s get a hundred!” at exam time.

High school had its share of both greats and highly capable eccentrics, and kids probably ought to experience a few of each. Mr. Sutter taught Spanish trying to channel Severus Snape but too easily revealed his sense of humor and affection for his students. Mr. Sessions lectured, kind of, while leaning perilously far back in a castered, sprung wooden office chair, raining brilliance on us as we tracked the frequency with which he used some of his pet phrases. We failed to appreciate at the time that teaching modern East Asian history in 1966 was a bold and even radical step; we would otherwise probably have been memorizing the succession of English monarchs or the like. And at last, as a junior and then blessedly again as a senior, I had Mr. Strachan, the math teacher who explained things well, had patience with my deficits, and might possibly, with a bit more time, have turned me into an actual mathematician.

I had great professors in college, memorably Harold Bloom, who taught American poetry (his first class on the topic) with his face buried in his hands and had every student hanging on his every word. I had three professors who took pains to eviscerate the self-conscious writing style I had learned in high school, last of all Mr. Loewenberg, a graduate student whose wise and scathing comments on my final paper of senior year presaged the misery that would be graduate school for me. Mr. Westphal, Mr. Kasson, and above all my advisor for two senior theses, the amazing Norman Holmes Pearson, demonstrated that college professors are human beings, too. My freshman History and Politics professor was a student of Leo Strauss named W. M. Kendrick who was a complete enigma then (our classes were held in a secure undisclosed location) and remains so to this day; I managed not to become a Straussian convert like so many of the Neocons who brought us the Iraq War.

I chose my path to graduate school unwisely, but my spouse has reminded me that everywhere you’ve been is on the road to where you are. It was Mr. Boulger who finally helped me devise an appropriate exit strategy as well as helping me at last to appreciate English Romantic poetry.

As the title of this blog hints and many posts have confirmed, a huge influence on my teaching life, if not my actual style, was my late father, David Gow. My uncle, Norman W. Howard, was also a role model as well. I have limited myself in this enumeration to people actually called teachers by trade, but I have learned much from too many others to even start mentioning here.

Yes, I am enjoying naming names, and the chances are I am forgetting some others who are worthy of mention here. The point is, of course, that most of us who teach, I think, could proclaim their own roll call of great and influential teachers in their lives, and in our daily work I like to think we are all paying tribute to those men and women whose influence we may have recognized too late, or perhaps too fleetingly, to express our gratitude in a timely way. 

Naming these names here is also my feeble and much belated way of saying thank you. I rather hope I’ve done a better job simply by working in their spirit.