Those Who Teach

With the ending of the statewide teachers’ strike in West Virginia (for a five percent raise on a salary that is still among the lowest in the nation), I see again how many people in this country hate teachers.

I admit to some prejudice against the haters. I have had about five (or six) great teachers in my life. All were charismatic, electrifying lecturers and, most important of all, did not compel me to ingest the required curriculum as much as they showed me how what was being taught was valuable, necessary and important to me personally. The message I got from all is that having the time and places to let yourself be educated is a great gift that begins when that lightbulb of understanding goes off in your head, and does not end, especially when you find yourself as old (or older) than your teachers, and you think back on what they did and who they appeared to be, and you marvel at how the wisdom they were passing on.

This said, I can understand why teachers are a target of so much characteristically American animosity. Though the United States may be among the most educated societies in the world, and have colleges so prestigious that foreign students struggle for admission, most Americans believe that life’s greatest lessons are not taught in a classroom, but in the “real world.” We tend to have more respect for “self-made” individuals who began their social climb somewhere behind the starting line, than those who went to school, hit the books, collected credentials and became successful doing as they were taught–even if the majority of self made individuals in this country did precisely that.

We also revere those who exceptions who quit, do badly in school, or are misjudged by their teachers. Among the most famous are Albert Einstein, whose childhood teachers complained that he lacked focus and would most likely fail in later life, Henry Ford, who left school at 15 and became only fascinated with engineering when his father gave him a pocket watch that Ford took apart and reassembled, and Steve Jobs, the consumer products visionary whose dropped out of Stanford but was permitted to sit in on a calligraphy class, which, he later claimed, helped him realize the theory of design that had made some (though far from all) of his Apple technology products so successful.

Add to this a quasi-religious ideal, expressed in fusty mysticism by Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, that anything you really need to know you can learn by living in, and observing “Nature,” a homegrown American turn on the Protestant ideal that God speaks to us all, if we would only draw ourselves away from distraction and temptation and listen.

I confess I shared some of the haters’ skepticism about the efficacy of teaching the arts in a classroom. I became a writer by writing, because my heroes were writers and I wanted to be like them. As an adolescent, I had the chutzpah to call up some writers on the telephone. Others I met at science fiction conventions. I visited one who lived a few bus rides away and, as I have written elsewhere in this blog, apprenticed myself to another.

Every writer I met told me the same thing: you learn by reading and writing and sending your stuff out to editors who will reject it repeatedly until they accept it. This remains true, though nobody tells you how awful rejection can be; that publications will try to cheat you out of what little money they pay you; the days, weeks and months when you don’t know how you’re going to pay the bills; how much your stuff is change when it finally sees print; and the peculiar envy and condescension that management–editors, publishers, the people who make money from what you do–has for those who make the stuff they need to sell.

I took only one writing course in college and, based on a single short story, I passed it in the first week. Though I always considered writing to be my calling, I began teaching because I liked to share the experiences I acquired as a self-taught writer who wallowed in the real world. I believed (erroneously) that the tender shoots that bloomed in sheltered academic writing courses were not as hearty as what sprouted from “real world” soil.

Alas, it’s all writing, and what matters, in the long run and the short, is if what is on the page speaks to you, and to what degree you are guided by your ability to listen. But I was a young kid starting out on a journey as a teacher, and, like most who begin an adventure, I had every reason to believe my expectations would be met.

That’s when I ran into a quote from the witty Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

Though most in current English literature classes, and a few more who have graduated, don’t know who Shaw was, I most certainly did. I read many of Shaw’s plays in high school because they were funny and, more important, because they took accepted notions of what was morally right and proper and turned them upside down. In the relentlessly chatty world of Shaw’s plays, you could be delighted and annoyed at the same time.

And everyone knew, when I was a child, that Lerner & Lowe’s My Fair Lady, a staple of musical theater whose Broadway cast recording I had listened to on my parent’s record player, was based on Shaw’s Pygmalion, which, everyone also knew, was based on an earlier Greek legend.

In Stephen Sondheim’s The Frogs, an attempt to transform Aristophanes’ Fifth Century B.C.E. Greek comedy into a late-20th Century musical (it was originally presented in a swimming pool at Yale), the god Dionysus (played by Nathan Lane in the 2004 Broadway revival) is disgusted with the quality of contemporary dramatic material and travels to the underworld with the intention of bringing back a playwright who write better.  Dionysus has a tough choice: Shaw or Shakespeare? Shakespeare wins.

Shaw hated going to school in Dublin. He eventually left to work as a journalist–which he learned by doing–in London, becoming one of the city’s most popular theater critics. Even before his plays became successful, he was notorious as a socialist, contrarian and wit. He was extraordinarily prolific and lived on to be a charming, if peculiar and contradictory elder statesman among the Irish.

Shaw’s quip about teachers troubled me not just because the playwright did not teach. When you’re doing anything in the arts, you have moments when you feel you’re not producing enough, not working hard enough, not doing all that you wish you could do in order to achieve the fantasies you had when you started your journey.

And, as anyone who has tried to show anyone how to do something knows, there are times when teaching seems like a complete waste of time: you’ve repeated yourself so many times, and still, the student doesn’t understand.

Finally, Shaw speaks to the rarefied snobbery that professionals use to put themselves above the dilettantes.  True creativity–the kind that produces great art that changes the world or makes people spend money–cannot be taught. You either have it, or you don’t, and those that don’t should admit it and do something else.

You see this snobbery in editors and publishers who, when you put them in a place where they feel they can’t be overheard, talk about the awful stuff they rejected. How could anyone imagine that such dreck was worth writing?

In the science fiction field, the snobbery has been immortalized by late writer Theodore Sturgeon lives on as the founder of Sturgeon’s Law, who, in responding to critics who said “Ninety percent of science fiction is crud,” agreed, but added “ninety percent of everything is crud.”

Was I among the cruds because I hadn’t sold a science fiction short story? Was I a crud because a literary novel on which I had worked diligently for two years was rejected by a publisher of thrillers? When you’re self-taught, you know that learning anything worth doing can be difficult. You also know that talent may open the door a crack, but what keeps you in the game is persistence and dedication.

And just about anybody can be persistent and dedicated. In truth, most published writing is filled with those who produced and produced and produced until they became successful enough to produce less frequently.

So I came up with a line that appealed to those who asked me to do more teaching. I refuted Shaw.

Those who can, should. Those who can teach, must.

Because teaching is also an art, and we all have experienced teachers who were not good at the art. A teaching administrator proclaimed to me that the reason so many people hate teachers is that these people have had bad experiences in classrooms. The haters also believe that teaching is something that anyone can do. “So,” this administrator paused, having no doubt said this same thing to far too many people, “if anyone can build a house, do you want just anyone to build yours?”

Do we hear some of the same snobbery in this remark?

I later tangled with this administrator, who wanted me to teach his way, or not at all. He is one of the reasons I don’t teach any other way but my own.

The people I have taught have published. They have written stuff that they and other people enjoy. Some of them have gone on to teach.

We go where we’re needed, whether or not we understand that when we arrive.







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