Opening Minds

Why I Teach

During my lunch period early last May, I quickly drove from T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., into downtown Washington, D.C., to drop a package at my wife's office. As I crossed Pennsylvania Avenue and went up 14th Street, I couldn't help but feel sorry for the legions of lawyers, lobbyists, and government workers pouring out of buildings on their way to restaurants. I knew that when my lunch break ended I would be back at school with my sixth-period senior English class discussing a novel I loved, Faulkner's Light in August, and I couldn't imagine anyone in the crush on the streets of Washington doing anything more exciting that afternoon.

I was well aware that most of those people would have felt sorry for me had they known that I'd soon be in front of a bunch of high school kids. In fact, whenever I answer the question "What do you do?"—the mantra of social gatherings inside the Washington, D.C., beltway—the reactions I get are not exactly envious. Sometimes, the conversation becomes strained and I get looks that seem to say, "What's wrong with this guy? Can't he find decent work?" At other times, people react not so much with condescension as puzzlement—"You must be brave. How do you do it?" as if teaching today's kids has to be a form of torture.

Of course, for some, teaching is torture. But for those who truly love teaching, the classroom is a place like no other, a place whose magic is deeply felt but hard to articulate. I felt that magic first in the fall of 1965, when I walked into my first class as a teacher—freshman composition at Loyola University in Chicago. All summer I had been dreading it; I felt I just didn't know enough. When I entered the room of some 20 girls and a handful of guys, I was so nervous that I was sweating and my glasses fogged up. It didn't help matters that a tall blonde girl in the front row whispered, loud enough for everyone to hear, "This guy will be a pushover." After about 10 minutes, I began to relax—and from that moment I knew that the classroom was for me.

About 15 years ago, when I could feel that the kids were getting younger and younger and I was getting older and older, I started to fear that one September I would walk into class and the magic would be gone. I consider myself blessed that this has never happened.

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One thing that keeps me coming back is the exhilaration of being with young people—the give and take, the challenge to be on their wavelength and to get them on mine, the being a part, however small, of the lives of the next generation. Maybe playwright Arthur Miller explained it best when, in an essay on Death of a Salesman, he wrote that man's greatest need—"a need greater than hunger, or sex, or thirst"—is "to leave a thumbprint somewhere on the world." Years ago, when I first read that remark, I thought to myself, that's it—that's why I teach.

There's a special excitement to teaching in a school like mine where 87 countries are represented in our student body. Over the years, kids from trouble spots all over the world have poured into Alexandria. I have taught kids who escaped from Vietnam on the last flights out of Saigon; kids who have fought in wars in Cambodia and Sierra Leone; kids who walked from El Salvador through Mexico and swam the Rio Grande into Texas. Long before September 11, the cities of Kabul and Kandahar were familiar to my colleagues and me. They were the birthplaces of many of our favorite students. I often wonder if I have taught these kids half as much about literature as they have taught me about the global village we now inhabit.

I'm often asked how I can teach the same thing year after year and not get bored. The answer is that the kids are never the same, so no matter how many times I teach something, the students always make it a new experience.

I agree with the late Ken McCrorie of Western Michigan University who wrote in his book Twenty Teachers, that one of the great blind spots with teachers is that "when we walk into our classrooms we forget that we are still human beings." Sometimes I'll see in a flash, usually by accident, how much students look to teachers for counseling and recognition. They look to us for help in getting over a personal crisis. They look for opportunities to display their unique talents. They look for chances to help others. To me, a classroom should become a family—a community where kids want to be and where a great human drama plays out.

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Aside from looking forward to the excitement that a new group of students will provide, I think that most teachers get revved up every September because we have a passion for our subject, a belief, however overblown, that we have something to teach that kids cannot live without. When kids see that passion, they respond. I would hate to teach biology, because I find it downright boring. That's not the case with my colleague Dave Keener. "He's just crazy about biology," students say, so much so that they are afraid not to study hard for fear of disappointing him.

I know that the study of biology has saved infinitely more lives than the study of Shakespeare's sonnets. And that physics, chemistry, and math—not the novels of Toni Morrison or Jane Austen—have been the basis of the military might that keeps this country free, but science and math are not "my thing." I am more than content to let others worry about them. For me, literature has infinitely more value than any other subject. Part of that feeling comes from the education I received from nuns and priests in the closed Irish Catholic world in which I grew up in western New York in the '50s. Values and morality, the struggle of good and evil were at the heart of that world—a world I took so seriously that when I was 18, I entered a Jesuit seminary. I left three years later and have seldom darkened the door of a church since; but, as a variation of the cliché goes—you can take the boy out of the seminary, but you can't take the seminary out of the boy.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Faulkner said that the theme of all great literature is the "human heart in conflict with itself," a theme central to all religions. For me, literature reveals more about our humanity than theology, philosophy, psychology, or history ever can. But it's not just the insight it offers that makes literature, at least for me, superior to all other studies. It is also a matter of its beauty and intensity. The Roman poet Horace said it two thousand years ago when he wrote that the purpose of poetry was not just to teach [docere] but also to delight [placere]. Shakespeare's plays are still performed all over the world and not just for their insight into human nature or their historical facts. They are staged because Shakespeare's language has a beauty and his characters a universality that delight us.

At the beginning of the year I always tell my students that I will do my best to choose literature that they will have a chance of "getting into." That may sound like a leftover '60s and '70s "do your own thing, relevancy" cliché, but it's not. I don't know any adults who would put down $60 to $80 to see a play that they think they will not enjoy. Nor do any of us go to a bookstore to spend $25 on a new novel that we feel will bore us. Literature, like any art form, has to speak to us intellectually and emotionally.

In an attempt to show students that literature both teaches and delights, I start the year off with poetry. Compared with novels and plays, poems are compact, intense expressions of ideas and emotions, and by discussing a wide range of poetry the first few weeks, I can get to know my students better and they can get to know me. And if one poem doesn't work, I can quickly try another, whereas with a novel, I could be locked in for a couple of weeks. Poetry, more than any other form of literature, is meant to be felt in the gut. There are few feelings more satisfying than when kids get turned on to a poem—when the truth in it gives them a new insight or confirms something they have always believed or when it evokes a heated discussion.

That's why I always start the year off with poetry that grabs their attention. Denise Levertov's "The Mutes," in which the speaker derides men for sexually harassing women as they walk down the street, never fails to get girls telling boys that they have no idea how rude they are, and boys firing back that girls bring unwanted attention on themselves by dressing provocatively. Richard Wright's "Between the World and Me," an account of coming across the charred body of a lynching victim, stuns many students with its grotesque imagery and shows them that the written word has a power to portray the horror of violence in a way that the mayhem-laden movies they see never can.

Part of the excitement of teaching poetry is forcing kids to wrestle with lines that stump them and then suddenly seeing them light up as they break through to understand what the poet is saying. The ironic religious imagery in Sharon Old's "Sex Without Love" usually throws most kids on first reading, but because it is about one of their favorite subjects, they willingly struggle to break it down. I get even more satisfaction when the poem we are working on comes from a world several hundred years removed from theirs. John Donne's 17th-century metaphysical poetry poses problems for anyone. But when, after lengthy group discussions, poems of Donne like "The Good-morrow" or "The Flea" suddenly bridge some four hundred-plus years and speak to my students, I am reminded again why I love my job.

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A novel can lock my students and me in for two or three weeks. That's why the first novels I teach every year are two that always work: J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon. Salinger's Holden Caulfield was created over 55 years ago, but his combination of wit, cynicism, and irreverence, not to mention his boredom with school and difficulties on the dating scene, still resonates with kids today. Morrison's novel, the raw and poignant story of a young man's conflict with and ultimate understanding of his parents and their ancestry, pushes kids who aren't fond of reading to the limit. Its time shifts and use of stream of consciousness—not to mention the fact that it is over four hundred pages long—challenge even the best students. The satisfaction for me is to hear many kids say that difficult though Song of Solomon was, they eventually "got into it" and were swept along by the story.

More and more, I consider those moments when I see a poem, novel, or play really speak to kids as enormous victories, because, as much as I still love teaching English, I have no illusions. Like all teachers, I am in an ever-growing battle for the hearts and minds—indeed just the attention—of teenagers. With instant messenger, e-mail, the Internet, computer games, DVDs, videos, cable TV, and myriad other forms of escape and amusement beckoning, it's harder than ever for kids to curl up with a book, to find the quiet time to concentrate and get in the frame of mind that reading a novel or play requires.

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One big victory over the popular culture came last year, when, after my students read Alice Walker's The Color Purple, I showed them the film version with Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. There was hardly a student who didn't say the book was infinitely more powerful than the movie. I got the same reaction when, after students read Cormac McCarthy's All The Pretty Horses, I showed them scenes from the film version starring Matt Damon and Penelope Cruise. Most kids thought the movie was silly and agreed that it in no way captured the characters and the passion of the novel. They agreed that reading can stimulate the imagination in ways that movies cannot replicate.

Sometimes my victories come when I least expect them. Last year I got up my courage and taught Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice for the first time in some 20 years. While I was confident that the girls would like it, I thought the boys would hate it. But the reaction of Luis Cabrerra was almost enough to make my year. Cabrerra is a rabid sports fan who seems to know every arcane detail about Washington, D.C.'s sports teams, the Washington Redskins, the Capitals, and D.C. United. He never impressed me as a candidate for the Jane Austen Society, but I was wrong. "Once Darcy came into the picture," Luis said, "I really got into it. He was so cool, the way he handled girls, how he never got pressed about them. I stayed with the book because of him." On the other hand, Luis said he "hated" The Killer Angels, the Civil War novel on Gettysburg that I was sure most guys would like. Lee Sparks, however, found The Killer Angels deeply moving. "Maybe it was because we read it right after September 11," she said, "but I got this huge feeling of pride and patriotism in reading the book. The nobility on both sides was amazing. Finally I could put faces and personalities on the names that disappear in our history books."

There were few moments more satisfying last year than witnessing the empathy and pure outrage that Elie Weisel's profoundly unsettling Holocaust remembrance, Night, evoked from my black American students, as well as from Muslim students from Africa and the Middle East. Several students remarked that Weisel's horrifying recollections of babies being tossed into fire pits, mass hangings, and other atrocities made them rethink their own history. "The book shocked me," says Alton Fortner, now at St. Augustine's College. "It made me see that blacks have not been the only ones to suffer injustice."

Comments like those of Alton and Luis and Lee remind me why, after some 35 years of teaching, I am still excited every year when that first bell rings ushering in the new school year.


Patrick Welsh is an English teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., and a writer. He regularly contributes to national newspapers such as the Washington Post and is on USA Today's board of contributors.


American Educator, Fall 2002