FIFTY YEARS AN ENGLISH TEACHER
by Ray Greenblatt
Things became eccentric as soon as I applied for a job teaching English out of grad school. With two English degrees—one in British Literature and the other in American Lit—I contacted an educational employment agency in Philadelphia to get me possible interviews. One school in northern Jersey was small with practically one-on-one instruction, which I liked. However, it was a school for learning disabled and I had no Special Ed degree! Another high school in Marblehead, Massachusetts had an opening for head of the English Department—but I had no teaching experience yet! I had a hunch years later that these schools already knew whom they wanted, but they had to appear to their Board as if a “world-wide search” had been conducted.
In the sixties it was amazing what students were willing to read. I taught IVANHOE to my ninth grade classes and A TALE OF TWO CITIES to my tenth. Looking back on the tests I gave I wonder how today’s students would have succeeded. As years went on, shorter and shorter books appealed to students.
A colleague in the math department and I got together to start a club: SPII, the Society for the Promulgation of Intellectual Interests. It sounds pretty highfalutin, but a number of students were intrigued. This filled a niche where regular academic classes didn’t reach. We had regular after-school meetings when students were supposed to report on topics they personally enjoyed. These topics ranged from an analysis of a favorite movie to ploys in chess to what special products Mexico exports, etc.
I was in the middle of diagramming a sentence when an announcement came over the intercom: President Kennedy had been shot! Soon after, we heard that he had died. Too often on TV interviews, witnesses describe an event as “surreal” until it becomes cliché. But that day was. Students and teachers wandered out of classrooms, then out of the school, onto the lawns and yards, in a daze for the rest of the day.
I mention the next incident if only to depict the tenor of the times. I came back from Christmas Vacation with a beard. The Headmaster of the private secondary school that had hired me—a type of school you’d think would have more freedom, compared to the public school that must subscribe to so much red tape—was very upset. After observing me a few days, perhaps to see if I would shave, he summoned me into his office. When I, in my new teacher greenness, asked him what was wrong with a beard, he said that it would “frighten the children.” I couldn’t agree so he called a Board meeting. As we all sat around a long table, the Chairman strode in, a large ruddy man with a walrus mustache. After some discussion, my point-of-view, and vociferation from the Head, the Chairman stated if I kept the beard neat that it was acceptable to him. I had won—but the headmaster never renewed my contract for the following year.
The advantage of living in southern New Hampshire was that I was just an hour’s drive from Boston, a mecca of American Literature. I could take my students to visit Thoreau’s Walden Pond, Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, or Concord Churchyard where so many famous literary people were buried, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to all the Alcott family.
In English class students always love debating. They like the rules whereby they can validly argue to bloodlessly win their point. I would let them choose their own topics, whether it was legalizing marijuana, changing the drinking age, the validity of the Viet Nam War, or the superiority of Russia vs the U.S., etc. Students would spend vast amounts of extra time on research in the library. Having books at their fingertips was more immediate than finding references online. They also liked the concept of purposely making the other side angry, thus maybe out of control. Or doing research to get to know what the opposing side might state. Or even boldface lying to see if the opposition would catch them.
Two-minute speeches were also a challenge. I’d have general words in a hat from which they’d choose: “dog, scream, slowly, them,” etc. It took imagination and careful timing to sensibly fill those 120 seconds. Sometimes the biggest loudmouth would freeze; the seconds of frozen silence would drip by, until the final moment when the class was allowed to laugh.
I also had the opportunity to teach English in the tropics, in St. Thomas’ large public school. I had seventh graders—185 of them! The Virgin Islands owned by America since 1917, the academic system was geared to stateside standards. However, the students didn’t want to leave this balmy paradise. Thus, motivation was stagnant. One English teacher, who had sleeping sickness, would doze off in class. The students would write him messages pinned to his clothing and slip out the door.
My students were a different culture for me to learn about. I would be marking tests at my desk when a student would sneak up to touch my uniquely straight hair; they were learning too. Knowing English perfectly well, they could switch into “Calypsonian” anytime they did not want me to know what they were saying. Once my wife and I heard of a wonderful restaurant on the edge of town. As we sat there devouring succulent steaks, out of the kitchen came a cook in white apron and tall white chef’s hat—one of my seventh graders with a part time job!
Some English teachers seem to be blessed by what most teachers would call “plums”—that is, they naturally avoid marking tests or essays. For instance, they are assigned to be advisors to the school newspaper, or to the school radio station or debating department in a large public school. In an English Department we usually do not have true/false or multiple-choice tests. The easiest time I would get in the course of a school year would be the poetry unit; most lyrics are short.
Before smoking was cast in a dim light, I would enter the Faculty Lounge and not be able to see across the room. The Chaplain sucked on his pipe, the math teacher lipped a long corona, and the Spanish teacher paced back and forth flicking cigarette ashes at any nearby ashtray. This high strung Spanish teacher often stood in the doorway of his classroom puffing, kindly not wanting to directly entice or fumigate the kids. Also being the varsity soccer coach, he would stride up and down the sidelines instructing with his cigarette as a kind of pointer.
I soon discovered that grammar had to be taught judicially. One could highlight a number of issues in an essay or short story in a one-on-one counseling session when returning papers. However, some points—like tenses for the seventh graders or semi-colon usage for eleventh grade—had to be presented to the entire class, so that all would be on the same developmental page. I found that a short dose of grammar on a specific lesson followed by a literature unit was like a dessert after the meal.
I had two very talented seniors in English who wrote very thoughtful essays. Once I assigned the class to write a paper about George Bernard Shaw’s PYGMALION. I circulated a list of possible topics but added that they could make up their own topic as long as it was about that specific play. Student A’s essay was brilliant; I thought he was achieving new heights intellectually. Then I read Student B’s essay. Exactly the same! An English colleague ran it for me through Turnitin.com, an app that detects cheating. Both students had stolen the same essay, unknown to each other. Why, when they had such natural talent, would they risk an “O” and academic disgrace? Both said, as seniors, they were so busy, so overwhelmed, that this was easier than doing their own work!
During the poetry unit I offered extra credit: anyone could write a sonnet. I laid out the specifications, adding with some bravado, “Even if it’s in blood!” Next morning I received a darn good sonnet, but in a strange smeary red ink. “Albert, what kind of ink is this?’ “Well sir, you said you would accept it in blood so as an experiment I kept pricking my finger . . .” Albert went on to art school and became a successful illustrator.
Most seventh graders have great imaginations. I was impressed that they tuned in to old-fashioned novels: John Buchan’s 39 STEPS, Conan Doyle’s JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, Pyle’s MEN OF IRON, Haggard’s KING SOLOMON’S MINES, etc. These books might be dated but their fast moving plot, extensive vocabulary and complex sentence structure were excellent teaching tools. Students eagerly did research into the variety of the exotic settings. Thus, we had an adjunct geography course, which I found many schools had dropped.
Traditions often occur spontaneously then can suddenly disappear. One May morning the student body entered the Chapel to discover scarecrow replicas of each senior dressed in his own clothes sitting in the pew. One could recognize the style of each one; they were in the dorms still sleeping. A very clever prank! The following year part of the dining room was missing; the tables and chairs with silverware set-up were neatly arranged in the gym. It must have taken much manpower to lug all those things through the night. Finally, whoever first opened the main building stumbled over a flock of squawking chickens running round the hallways. After the Headmaster called a school assembly, the tradition ceased.
I had high standards for the Literature and Film course that I taught. The book had to be well written and the film based on it had to have won awards. You’d be amazed after these requirements were applied how the field dwindled. Some of my tried and true: OUT OF AFRICA by Isak Dinesen, BEING THERE by Jerzy Kosinski, A LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT by Eugene O’Neill, WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF by Edward Albee. Plays work exceptionally well because they are already in successfully visualized form.
It’s amazing the hidden talents students bring to English class. A ninth grader admitted that he had never finished a book. I had a book report list but after getting to know him suggested he try any book by Stephen King. He devoured several hundred pages of THE SHINING and loved it. One day after class a tenth grader asked me if I had read David Foster Wallace. At that time I had never heard of him. This boy had read all of Wallace’s massive and difficult works and lectured me coherently about them.
The World Literature course was becoming more and more popular, especially as the school became more multi-cultural. Some books that worked well were: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s STRANGE PILGRIMS, Chinua Achebe’s THINGS FALL APART, Yasunari Kawabata’s SNOW COUNTRY, Albert Camus’ THE STRANGER. Unfortunately the British Literature course was dying. A new dean of faculty soon cut the course entirely.
I took issue with that decision. British Literature is relevant because it is about people and events like all literature. It is also especially important because it is the foundation of communication in American English. Granted, a work like Milton’s PARADISE LOST was tough to teach; you could certainly touch on descriptions of Satan or his home in hell. A far earlier work like Chaucer’s CANTERBURY TALES was a delight for the humor alone and its characters that often acted like living people still do today.
From our school in the country I took a selective group of students into Philadelphia. First we toured the Edgar Allan Poe house where the guide stated quite humbly that he had read all of the hundred or more Poe biographies. Furnishings were next to nil, so we proceeded across the Delaware River to Camden, New Jersey where Walt Whitman had lived a number of his later years until his eventual death. The unpretentious row house contained all of Whitman’s own furnishings. A tiny elderly lady was our guide. We ended up in Whitman’s bedroom, some students on scattered chairs, the settee, and even on his bed—spellbound. As she spoke, she knew Whitman’s philosophy and poetry so well that she seemed to become him!
In this relatively small prep school one requirement of the senior class was to perform a play. The English teacher was always the advisor! In an all-boys’ school we ran the gamut: THE CAINE MUTINY COURT MARTIAL, THE ODD COUPLE, TWELVE ANGRY MEN, ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH, etc. Each year it became more of a challenge to find an appropriate play. A banner year was when the English Department collaborated with the Art Department in the production of ANIMAL FARM. The artists fabricated wonderful animal masks and costumes that truly brought the play to life.
Boarding schools, often being remotely located, develop their own eccentricities. The school where I worked had begun at the turn of the twentieth century as one of the many hundred farm schools across America. We had five hundred Guernsey milk cows, ten thousand chickens, pigs and two thousand acres on which to raise wheat, alfalfa, corn and soybeans. At the appropriate time, the headmaster would stop all classes for several days to harvest potatoes—all students and teachers! Most of that had faded away before I came to teach English. I did experience for a few years ninth graders, who had been milking since 4 AM, arrive in the warm classroom to immediately fall asleep.
I’ve had some very competent colleagues in English who knew their subject thoroughly. However, one is truly outstanding. He loves to travel the world; thus, fine photos he took himself hang on the classroom walls. Loving growing things, he has potted plants all over the room. When he taught a book such as LORD OF THE FLIES, he had students draw a large map of the island. Each year he creates a game of many steps and clues so that teams of students search all over campus to follow the trail to a final treasure. He and I chaperoned many trips to plays to bring the theater alive for students. May he carry on stimulating minds for another generation of students.
I had a lot of fun exposing my students to outside influences. A talented woman came into class to demonstrate how to make books. Two poets performed, one in English and the other in Spanish. A Greek actress enacted scenes from various roles like Medea, Phaedra and Venus. Probably the most rewarding moments were when graduates, who knew the school character so well, returned to my classroom to tell about their ongoing lives. And how this school had helped prepare them.
A Note About The Author: Ray Greenblatt has been connected with the SVJ from its inception as a poet, essayist and fiction writer. Thirty years ago he and Peter Krok, Editor-in-Chief of the SVJ, formed the Overbrook Poets, a group that meets monthly to critique poems and continues to thrive into the present. Ray Greenblatt's poetry has been published around the world, translated into Gallic, Polish and Japanese, as well as set to music at the University of Siena in Italy. He has been on the Board of the Philadelphia Writers Conference and spoken at the John Steinbeck Festival in Salinas, California. A handmade book of his poetry, Shadow with Green Eyes, has been published by Meg Kennedy Press. He’s author of the novel Twenty Years on Graysheep Bay.