Great Moments in Teaching II
Jerome Shea March 24, 2007 Weekend Wonk
Last week I made fun of poor Harold Welsh and his colon problem (or perhaps his problem colon). This week is my turn; it’s only fair. So, two stories at Shea’s expense.
I taught my first class, a freshman composition class, in the fall of 1964 at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins. I was twenty-two years old. I doubt very much that I slept the night before that very first meeting. To say I was terrified would be rank understatement.
What I did do, beyond fitful pacing and soul scouring, was to print on a four by six card just a few little desperate notes to myself. Things like “tell them your name,” “introduce the textbooks,” “make a Colorado joke [although the Colorado joke was me!],” “take roll,” “talk about your own freshman English experience,” and so forth. This, I hoped, would be a magic talisman. With that card in my hand, I could weather the worst.
I took a deep breath, marched across the threshold, smiled at them, and opened the handbook I was carrying. AND THE NOTE CARD WAS NOT THERE! I am not making this up. Between the hallway and the lectern, it had disappeared! Panicked, I rifled through that book, and my other one, and then all my pockets—a strange jig indeed, but the jig was up. And the students were eyeing me very curiously. I had no choice but the truth, a truth I learned early.
“My name is Shea,” I said. “I have never taught before and I had some notes on a card so that I wouldn’t throw up or something because I am so nervous and godhelpme I just lost it. The card, I mean.” I then held my breath.
“That’s ok,” said somebody in the back, and then they all chorused in. “Please don’t be nervous. Why should you be nervous? Hey, tell us about yourself, ok? Then we’ll tell you about ourselves, ok?”
I would like to say that I turned into a brilliant pedagogue overnight. I didn’t. I had a lot of painful learning to do (still do, in fact). But we made it through the semester, a brave band of brothers (and sisters). God bless those kids—many surely grandparents now!—one and all.
And this is what you are really not going to believe: sixteen years and many travels later I opened up an old freshman handbook and out dropped that little AWOL note card. I think thanks are in order, but I don’t know if I should thank a Higher or a Lower power.
Now the scene shifts to Illinois State University in Normal, about four years later. It is a sophomore American literature survey course, a feather in Shea’s cap. He still has a lot to learn, but he is himself a sort of “sophomore” in his professional progress and should be more wary of the fact that “sophomore” literally means “wise fool.” Too clever by half, if you will. He has learned to use his basso profundo to good effect. He has learned the thoughtful pause. He has learned the soulful stare into the middle distance.
This boy has come a long way from Colorado.
It must have been about half-past April, because we were discussing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby (which has been called if not “the great American novel,” surely the greatest novel about America). We were luxuriating in Chapter 6 (for those of you following at home), which begins with the backstory of Gatsby’s transformation from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby and ends with the moment, also years before, when Jay Gatsby fell irrevocably, fatefully—and fatally—in love with Daisy Fay (who would go on to marry the boorish Tom Buchanan).
It is, arguably, the key to the whole tragic novel. It is high drama. It is poetry. And I was determined to rise to it and bring these sophomores along with me to literary paradise. But there was a snake in this Eden, in the form of the phrase “listening for a moment longer to the turning-fork that had been struck upon a star.” I fell in love with that phrase (even though I inadvertently amended it).
I downshifted my bass an octave, amped up the volume, gazed at a spot in the middle distance that only I could see, and out of me majestically rolled,
“Listening for a moment longer to the TUNING-F**K STORK upon a star.”
Silence? You could hear a pin drop. On the other side of the campus. Silence that seemed to roar on forever. I stared at them; they stared at me. Two eternities later a noise—a laugh that sounded like “geeauuumpkk”—exploded in the back row (why is it always the back row?) and then the rest of the class gave themselves permission to join in. And so, mercifully, did Shea. We laughed till the tears ran. Years later people would start calling that sort of thing “closure,” I believe.
See you next week.
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