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Sunday, March 13, 2011

In Defense of Bastard Teachers

(Looks like this will not be appearing on Thought Catalog, so it appears here.)

A recent Thought Catalog article (Be Generous. Speak to the Smartest.) by Daniel Coffeen sparked a mixed comment thread marked by numerous calls for the author to stay away from teaching for the good of students and society. Others, fewer in number, weighed in supportively. I was one of the latter, with some misgivings; as the comments rolled in, I steeped in deeper waters. It’s easy to make the case for caring, for hand-holding, for kiddie coddling. I will make the tougher argument (and probably get skewered for it). I will make the case for bastards.     

I’ll start with a quote from Mr. Coffeen on pedagogy: “This may sound obvious but, needless to say, many in the pedagogic community believe just the opposite: aim for the lowest common denominator, for the stupid and least interested.” While I think he may have been punished by some for his bluntness and honesty, I can also get why he was attacked for being a dick. Maybe he pushed it too far, throwing around the word “stupid.” My brother was not academically inclined, but I have never considered him stupid; there are many topics (construction, demolition, flora and fauna both local and worldwide) where I will quickly bow to his expertise. Still, he wasn’t built for school, and I’m sure some people thought he was dumb.

Now, a general theory that I think stands a (faint) chance of uniting the factions in Coffeen’s comment thread: As we progress through school, the hand-holding can decrease. It MUST decrease. Coffeen’s detractors, some of whom practically demanded that he be banned from teaching, have a point if he taught K-6. Higher than that, and they become increasingly full of shit as Coffeen’s credibility grows.

Here’s why (and I can only speak from a full public-school background, K-MFA): From high school on, many of my best teachers were bastards. On the flip side, people like my brother needed waste no more years in school. Sure, he might have found some area of interest had he attended college, but that’s alternate universe stuff. He prospered by getting out into the hands-on world, and that’s the sanest, kindest outcome pursuant to Coffeen’s statement, “If the dummies don’t get it, fuck ‘em. It’s not the job of smart people to cater to dumb people. It’s the job of dumb people either to shut the fuck up or try and be smarter.” Ironically, this sounds like something my brother would say today; only he might be saying it because some college-educated person didn’t have the brains to replace a bad capacitor in their HVAC unit. I know the outraged commenters found this to be one of Coffeen’s most incendiary bits, then calling him things like “arrogant asshole.” What they don’t get is that their view of education has a built-in arrogance of its own: that their overly democratic view can be a waste of everyone’s time, including a “stupid” person’s, based on the conceit that they can enlighten everyone in their image. Sorry, in some cases you’re just beating square pegs through round holes—the sort of exercise that dumb guys are often quicker in spotting as foolish, if put against academics. It should be obvious by now that higher education is not for everyone, and that’s not a judgment from on high; it’s a common-sense recognition of different types of intelligence, different ways of navigating life.

No matter how much our culture devalues the blue-collar man, manual labor persists in its manifold robotic and animal usefulness. It neither ennobles nor dehumanizes, necessarily; it’s simply necessary. You’ll know this when your car breaks down. You will be saved by a man with no PhD, no letters at all after his name. His power comes from a realm neither academic nor celebrated, but today he is the better man.

I realize at this point that I’m inching away from Coffeen’s main point of lecturing on a higher rhetorical plane. I seem to be aiming at some kind of moving target, either highlighting the “smartness of the stupids,” or just making common enemy of his detractors, whose attacks seemed too rote and simplistic. I realize also that my thesis may be teetering on the cliche of promoting a “school of hard knocks” mentality. If so, it is because George Carlin made a lot of good points when he dissected the continual “pussification of America.”

One of my favorite Coffeen comments came from someone called BRI: “I once had a professor who called my writing "trivial" and told me that my writing skills were behind most of the students in my class. Instead of sitting around attacking him with the rest of my classmates (he was pretty nasty to everyone) I took it as a challenge. I managed to pull off an A in the class. His superiority, which was extremely apparent to anyone in my class, did nothing but motivate me.” This embodies the right attitude to me. Not all students will have such fortitude, but it’s exactly what progress is built on. When I taught writing, BRI was just the type of ore I loved to discover.

Another thing I noticed in the comment thread was that Coffeen’s attackers, aside from hating the word “alas,” used more ad hominem attacks, where the supporters offered more anecdotal evidence. I’m staying true to that formula and going with the anecdotes, because stories are not only more memorable, they’re all I have: the pedagogy course I took against my will in grad school made barely a ripple on my long-term mindset, and is less than forgettable compared to the bastard giants on whose shoulders I stand today.

Before I send out my champions, I’ll concede that they not only teach/taught above grade 9, but that they in no way nullify or diminish those teachers who are kind, soothing, and ever-uplifting. I’m hardly an Iron John cultural conservative, but it makes sense to me that the teacher of small children be stereotyped as a smiling, nice lady with the capacity to unselfconsciously help six-year-olds with potty problems. It also follows that we grow toward adversity (within reason), and  men tend to make better bastards. I can make you a list of the sweethearts at some point if necessary, but today we celebrate the sons (and daughters) of bitches. The whip-wielding masters of public school sado-academic darwinism. The tellers of harsh truths.

Bastard Champ #1: Eric Pervukhin

He might be my all-time favorite teacher. He teaches design and illustration at Missouri State, but seems to know everything visual from classical painting to computers, printmaking to cartooning. He came from Moscow, tells vague stories about surviving post-WW2 internment camps and later working on what he called Soviet version of Sesame Street. He talk a little funny but knows English better than most native speakers. He’s a friendly, hilarious and talkative guy, but he used to make students cry occasionally after critiques. I took two of his classes for the sheer joy of them—they didn’t count toward my writing degree—and came away with not only technical knowledge, but a wealth of funny stories and wisdom. When I later taught writing classes, I found myself quoting Eric more than any other teacher.

For instance: “Students, be smart. If you cannot draw hands, don’t make comic about people—make comic about blob. Might be sad blob, might be happy blob, but BLOB YOU CAN DRAW.” This was one of several announcements made, in slight disgust, hot on the heels of one or two classmates trying to compose complex Hollywood blockbuster comic stories despite a total lack of artistic draftsmanship. Nothing looks more foolish, and they needed to be told, so Eric told them. His comment is awesome because it sounds delirious and wacky at first, but delivers the invaluable wisdom of working within one’s limits to meet deadlines with artistic savvy.

I generally got off easy, with Eric liking most of my work. Still, I was not above whipping. My lack of typography knowledge once led me to a layout with several characters “kissing.” I thought I was being slick or something; Eric said, “It looks like it was made by a totally ignorant person.” This brought me down for a bit, but I never made that mistake again.

More champ than bastard, Eric still makes the list because he embodies fearless knowledge, unafraid to scrape a few feelings. He once provided a possible slogan for this topic: “Remember, students like to be beaten!”

Bastard Champ Team-up: William Logan & Debora Greger

In 1998 I won my way into the University of Florida writing program. While I’ve not had stellar literary success since, I still feel it was time well spent. I learned great amounts at a great pace, much to the credit of the program director, William Logan. Logan had a reputation, of which I was faintly aware going in, for being the bulldog of the world of poetry criticism, and some people would say that comparison abuses bulldogs. Little did I know that it would be Logan’s wife, Debora Greger, who would be the true literary Shiva, destroyer of egos. Whereas Logan would litter a page with erudite comments ranging from informative to snidely mockful (“Oh! Oh! This sentimentality brings tears!” or “Amusing as it is, this poem never rises above the giddy.”  Greger would do things that could literally keep a young writer awake at night. She routinely drew an “X” through a whole stanza, even a whole poem, with terse comments like “trite and embarrassing.” Naturally we grads learned to form little support groups where we shared our Debora lashings for communal relief. One of her classic comments, which stayed with me partly because it was never delivered unto me, was, “This is exactly the sort of Southern-fried writing that I wish would crawl under the porch and die.” At her harshest, she delivered your poem to your mailbox in an envelope, saying, “This is a waste of my time—and yours. What exactly HAVE you learned this semester?”

Greger could also be very nice—never quite warm, but nice—which was almost more terrifying. In vaguely dominatrix fashion, she lashed capriciously, keeping one guessing when the next blow would come. I must say that I think Debora was occasionally too hardcore in her criticism, adding perhaps more anxiety than creative flux to the atmosphere. Still, there were lessons galore from both Logan and Greger. In tag-team fashion, they cured me of 99% of my sentimental writing instincts.

Finally, the King of Bastard Teachers

So much can be said, but in the end only so much can be said. At some point, a person must learn, do, fail, fight, and finally die. There is a grim ingredient in life that is sometimes overlooked, especially by institutions like schools, but a good Bastard Teacher will give it to you straight. I’ll end with a remembrance I wrote last year upon the death of my most memorable high school teacher.

RIP Great One (Summer 2010)

I heard today that Bill “Great One” Gould died this week of cancer at age 66. I told my wife, and she asked, “Who is that again?” That made me realize I’ve been remiss in spreading the good word.

“You may call me Sir, or Your Highness, or Great One,” he stated on the first day of class. “I will call you maggot.”

I used to say that if you went to Willard schools and never had one of Gould’s classes, you pretty much missed the Willard experience. You missed out, probably on getting your ass kicked by the champ. “Great One?” would be answered, “Yes, maggot?” with lightning speed and just the right touch of imperiousness.

Surfing the pimply tide of smartass teenagers with golf club in hand, playing Whack-A-Mole with any heads that poked up too high, the Great One jabbed us with Rickles-esque mockery and made sure he scheduled his conference hour in period 7 so he could scram an hour early— straight to the Brown Derby down the road in his greenish El Camino.

If you had fortitude, Gould was one of your first shots at having an anti-hero. He proudly revealed his closet full of the same history tests he’d been giving for 20 years. “There are no tricks here,” he’d say. “I’ll write the questions on the board Monday through Thursday. Every Friday there’ll be a test. There’s no reason everyone can’t get ‘A’s. But most of you will blow it.” You knew it was all true, because the tests were printed in purple mimeo ink even though the school had switched to photocopiers a decade earlier. Amazingly, some people managed to flunk those tests.

He practiced his golf swing at the front of the room. If you fell asleep, he’d hit your desk with it. God help you if you woke up drooling. He knew no fear or mercy. He skewered the kids of the School Board members, the Superintendent, anyone. He once signed a petition that called for the firing of… Bill Gould. He saved chalk dust and erasers long after blackboards were replaced with dry erase whiteboards, just so he could dust the cheerleaders’ black outfits on game days.

He thumped his liquor gut like a melon and said it was almost ripe.

Great One had funny nicknames for many students. Some were recycled year after year— “Zulu,” for instance, was used on my sister, and later on another tan blonde girl. Was it about the tan? Some were appropriated from the student lexicon, like Eric “The Juice” Poland, which Great One probably assumed was some ironic play on Eric’s being a pale antithesis of OJ Simpson. No, it was because Jimmy Barnes and I decided once that Eric’s big boxy noggin resembled a juice box. Maybe he’d call you J.J. or Bubba or Fescue Phil. He didn’t have to explain.

If he lacked a nickname for you, he just said your name in a snide tone to tarnish it a bit. Great One knew that one’s own name could be the most cutting and original smear.

In the end, Great One used the academic situation, and the topic of world history, as trojan horses to deliver his true curriculum: horrors of the social mirror. He tried to force our heads up through the low ceiling of our small-town youthful ignorance so we could see our own foolishness, and maybe see past it. He was also teaching us to wake up, to watch out, to be ready when it came time “to thin the herd.” Long after the facts about ancient Pharoahs faded, Great One’s core lessons remained relevant. I have never been more honored to be called “maggot.”

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