When, back in my Manhattan office ten stories above Madison Avenue, I had begun to lean toward becoming a teacher, I didn't realize how much more there is to being a teacher than simply standing before a class and handing down facts and methods. I imagined the students I would teach as undifferentiated groups of young faces. When I actually stood before them, I found that each one was particular. They were not just "students" but a collection of persons with separate tempers, histories, and attitudes. They had their youth in common, and their middle-class prosperous parents, their good health, intelligence, and their mostly midwestern homes. But these unifying qualities allowed for persons as distinct from one another as a partially blind, ungainly pious Episcopalian girl was from a handsome, bearded drug-abuser. Both their fathers were doctors.
All the while I was teaching students the elements of writing style and a little bit about literature, I was observing them with fascination. During more than twenty years in the publishing world, I had had very little chance to know young people. True, I had a great many nieces and nephews, but they lived mostly in St. Louis and I saw them only at family Christmas parties. A few of my New York friends had children, whom I met in the presence of their parents. I had no idea what eighteen-year-olds were like when they were on their own, away from their parents and their native backgrounds.
My own college days were ancient history, and in other ways, too, they were vastly different from life at DePauw in 1969. I had gone to college in the depression, to a very small Catholic women's college only a few blocks from my home. I was at the family dinner table every night, and slept in my own room with my sister. Webster College did have a few traditional college activities: for instance we had a basketball team which played other women's colleges in St. Louis. Our college was so small that even I could make the basketball team. We also had a few intramural sports which we pursued with competitive enthusiasm. We had dances, three each year, one of which was a prom. To these dances we would invite boys we knew; if we didn't know any (a frequent occurrence), our friends might get us blind dates. We had a college newspaper which came out, I think, once a week. We had a yearbook and a literary magazine. But that was about it for extracurricular activities,
I knew nothing of the power that sororities and fraternities could hold over college life, especially at a school where they were dominant. Sixty per cent of DePauw students lived in sorority and fraternity houses. I was astonished to see how important it was to most DePauw students to get into the right house. I had supposed that sororities and fraternities belonged to the past of raccoon coats and the varsity drag. I didn't dream that in the late sixties and early seventies young men and women would still be dressing up and going to rush parties and trying to make a good impression on other young men and women only a year or two older.
It was a serious business at DePauw. The houses were impressive mansions set on handsome lawns. Even the fraternities still had house-mothers. The first fall I was there I got several invitations to "fraternity teas." I couldn't believe it. Boys giving a tea? I would have to go and see this! It was a DePauw ritual, this Sunday afternoon tea to which faculty members were invited. The young men would be dressed in suits and ties, and they'd be standing on the porch or terrace, waiting for the guests. If the guest was a lady, one of the young men would come down the walk and offer his arm to conduct her inside. Each "brother" would devote himself to a particular guest, conversing earnestly and introducing his guest to the president and officers of the fraternity and to the house-mother. There would be coffee and tea and cakes served from a lace-covered table. It seemed like something from another century. The sororities had teas too, but this didn't seem to me quite as outlandish.
Sometimes I would be invited to a fraternity or sorority house for dinner by one of my freshmen. There would be a good meal; the house-mother would be at the table; and the young men or young women would address all their conversation to me, so that I was kept busy talking. Then suddenly everyone's plate but mine would be empty and the waiters would be serving the dessert. Dinner at a fraternity house never took more than twenty minutes, and I learned to start eating immediately and talk with my mouth full. At sororities there was a little more time, but not much. Eating, for students, was something to get through quickly so as to move on to the main business of life: studying, drinking, and dating.
The upperclassmen in a fraternity undertook to show the "pledges" how to get along well in college. "Pledge training" they called it. Inviting faculty to tea and to dinner was intended to improve the social assurance of the pledges. To help them do well academically, the upperclassmen advised them about professors, guided them in choosing classes, and kept files of exams and tests that professors had given in the past. I'm afraid the houses also had files of term papers which could be retyped and used again. Fraternity members always denied this.
Fraternity brothers and sisters would often register for courses in groups, and would sit in groups in the classroom. I suppose it gave them a feeling of support, but I didn't like it. It seemed to me that these blocs must be formidable to other students, closing off any casual classroom overtures. In fact, at DePauw it was hard for students to make friends with people in other houses, and almost impossible for "independents" and "Greeks" to mingle or to date one another. They lived, ate, studied, and played in their houses. Certain fraternities dated certain sororities. Independents dated independents. It was a divisive system.
Perhaps it had advantages for many freshmen, giving them a place to belong in their early frightened months and furnishing older brothers and sisters to help them adjust. But it was a bad system for some, those for example who didn't make the fraternities they wanted, or didn't make any. Independents were apt to be bitter, some because they had been rejected. Others had not even tried, having already had enough rejections earlier in their lives to show them the pattern. One independent, whom I'll call Jon Mattingly,* never missed a chance to refer contemptuously to "Greeks."
Jon Mattingly was in one of my first semester Advanced Freshman English classes, and he came to my attention almost at once for his somber mien. He was tall, thin, and messy. Though he looked angry and was always ready to argue, he didn't seem to associate with the campus radicals. I realized that he didn't associate with anybody. I'd see him striding along a campus walk, his long nose in the air, looking neither right or left, greeting nobody. He was an excellent writer, who quickly absorbed and acted on my writing principles. I got to know him, as I got to know all my students, through conferences about their papers, and I found that Jon was excruciatingly lonely. He wanted friends desperately, especially girl friends, but he didn't know how to make overtures or to accept them. He claimed to despise the fraternity system for its snobbishness, but he was a snob himself, who bragged to me about his family's prominence and wealth. He was intensely self-absorbed, and had not an ounce of humor, though he sometimes let out a sudden, braying, unpleasant laugh of derision. I could see why he didn't have any friends, but I kept worrying about him.
Another freshman -- I'll call him Frank Nedrick -- was also suffering an agony of loneliness, even though he had pledged a fraternity. He wrote a touching little essay about spending Saturday night in the library. It was well done and I read it in class, without of course revealing his name. When I looked up from reading it, I saw that burly Jim Warner had tears in his eyes. Perhaps he knew what it was to be lonely too, even though he looked so confident and successful.
There was a great deal of loneliness at DePauw, and so much of it unnecessary. Students were afraid of each other, afraid to make a gesture of friendliness in case it should be rejected. They would flaunt their bare feet, demonstrating perhaps that they were open and unashamed of their bodies. But they didn't know how to uncover their faces. They'd sit next to one another in class for a whole semester and never learn one another's names. I wished I could tell them to take off that bland mask that said "I don't need anybody," or that bored mask that said "DePauw is a drag." I wished they would turn to one another and show interest and the desire to be liked. But it was too risky. The students were always complaining of too little social life at DePauw. Social life! It was all around them. All they had to do to create social life was to turn their handsome heads and smile.
Only a few DePauw students were not handsome. A very few could be called actually homely. One of these was in my literature class. He sat near the front, took part in discussions, and seemed a funny, humble, talkative chap. He came to my office one day to tell me he was going to quit DePauw. He said he was fed up with his fraternity, but worse, he was going to flunk Economics. I urged him to go to his Econ teacher and get some advice on how to pull his grade up. He seemed terrified at the thought. He told me that he had once gone to a professor about a difficulty and had become tongue-tied, literally tongue-tied. He just kept standing there until the professor asked him, "Have you got anything to say?" He turned and fled.
After I gave him a pep-talk, he agreed to try once again. I kept fearing that his courage would fail, so a few days later I called him at his fraternity house and asked him if he had seen his Econ professor yet. He hadn't, but he promised he would, and the next day he told me that he had made an appointment with her. "I can't believe you called me," he said, shaking his head.
I learned that he had a lot of other problems. He said he couldn't get any girl to go out with him. I tried to kid him. "You probably make just one call to one girl and then give up. Be persistent." He answered sadly, "Would you believe sixteen phone calls in one night?" Later he had what he called a nervous breakdown at the fraternity house, got sort of wild and violent and had to be taken to the health center. His father wanted him to go to a psychiatrist, he said, but he was resisting because he was sure the psychiatrist would simply report everything back to his father. He did leave DePauw and I never heard anything from him or about him. I still mourn over his sixteen rejections in one night.
The apartment I lived in was across the street from the Tri-Delt sorority house. Because they were my neighbors, the Tri-Delts sometimes dropped in to chat, and from them I heard many side-lights of campus life which helped me to understand how young people, especially young women, were feeling.
Cindy Brown told me that in a fraternity house a necktie hanging on the outside knob of a door meant, "Don't enter -- sex going on." Cindy added in an offhand way that most boys felt that they had to display the tie out of self-respect. Cindy's date did, even though nothing like that was happening. She complained that it was hard to have a pleasant conversational evening -- "The guy always feels he has to make the big move."
Cindy Brown was an unhappy little idealist who felt herself out of place in the DePauw scene. She had joined Tri-Delt but, like other students I knew, she became disillusioned with sorority life and rather ashamed of being a part of its exclusiveness. Later she dropped out of college for a year, and then came back as an "independent." She still seemed restless and disillusioned. She wanted to do something worthwhile with her life and she couldn't seem to find the guidance that would help her, or friends who shared her serious outlook.
Ten years later, however, I met her at a wedding at Notre Dame. She looked hardly any different at thirty than she had at twenty, small, round-faced, serious, with long straight brown hair. She was smartly dressed, though, and she was with her husband, a social activist concerned with housing for the poor in Chicago. Cindy herself was a lawyer, doing a lot of work in children's court. A year or so later she and her husband had a son. I was so glad to know that things had turned out well for the little mixed-up girl I had taught and worried about in my early years at DePauw.
I mustn't give the impression, though, that DePauw was full of unhappy students. No such thing. The majority of the young people I taught were enjoying their college days. They were pleased with their sororities and fraternities, proud to be at DePauw, and intent on doing well. Aside from the usual highs and lows associated with grades and love affairs, they were reasonably happy. Their youthful good spirits and their enthusiasm for learning delighted me.
Whether delighting or worrying, I was absorbed in their personalities. I found that a teacher of writing comes to know her students more intimately than teachers of other subjects. For one thing, writing classes are always small. For another, students reveal themselves in a writing class as they would never have occasion to do, say, in a calculus class. There were many opportunities, in fact demands, for me to counsel on matters that had little to do with Advanced Freshman English or Introduction to Fiction. I wanted to do it; I liked doing it; I was excited at having a part in young people's maturing. But at the same time I was overwhelmed with the responsibility of it.
I found it very painful to rebuke a student or fail him, no matter how richly he deserved it. In one of my early years at DePauw I had to summon one Garth McFadden and inform him that his final creative work (which was required of a composition major as a sort of thesis) had been rejected by all three faculty readers. I was one of the three and I acknowledged it to him. This meant that he could not graduate, unless the English Department wanted to give him another chance and the University would allow it.
He was angry and belligerent, argued that his scraps of poetry and reflection had taken a lot of time -- a dubious defense. He blamed me, since I was the only reader he could identify, and hated me for it, and would continue to hate me, I knew, even though the snarl would probably be smoothed out. I knew I had sometimes shirked telling students unpleasant truths, so in this case I took a wry satisfaction in accepting his hate. Someone, somewhere along the line, had been doing Garth McFadden the injustice of flattering him, and letting him off easy, and that's why he thought he was being unjustly treated when we wouldn't accept a silly sophomoric set of poems and scraps as his senior thesis.
Yes, sometimes I was the one who was guilty of flattering. A bright, promising student occasionally so impressed me that I overpraised and overencouraged. A talented writing student, Cal Ramey, used to bring me reams of poetry and prose, wild, imaginative, and undisciplined. He was entranced with Joyce, loved Joyce's puns and wordplay, and turned out endless Joycean effusions for which he expected nothing but kudos. When I made suggestions, he always resisted. When once I gave him some really severe criticism, told him that his work was loose and self-indulgent, he looked stricken. He was very easily depressed. I was afraid I might damage his gift, and so I wasn't as hard on him as I ought to have been.
I worried a lot about Cal, both as a writer and as a person. I was his adviser, he talked to me a lot, and I came to know him well, although I wouldn't say that I really understood him. He was full of contradictions. At times he seemed very young. When he was in my class he always listened to me with deep gravity and respect, which was quite at odds with his clownish attitude at other times. In my office, or at my apartment where he sometimes dropped in, he was like an ebullient puppy, laughing and punning and bouncing around. He was sensitive, easily hurt, self-absorbed, yet at times could see himself with some irony. "I'm so wrapped up in myself these days that I can't give anything to anybody," he once said. Another time he said, glancing upwards, "Somebody up there is trying to make me kill myself." He laughed when he said this, but I thought it was more than a joke. He was a thorough romantic, in love with the past, who did not want to grow up into the modern world of vulgarity and hype. He hated his fraternity, but wouldn't quit it because "independents are all queers." He loved the library. Once he spent nearly a whole weekend with a concordance to Lucretius to count how many times Lucretius used the word "propter." He was majoring in classics.
He had an abnormal, really abnormal, concern about animals, especially insects, and would carry a mosquito outside rather than kill it. He would dump the liquid out of abandoned coke cans he saw around the campus so that ants would not crawl into them and drown. He told me these things humorously, mocking himself, but they alarmed me. I urged him many times to see a psychiatrist, but he scorned the idea. Freud, he said, was a quack, and he equated all psychiatrists with quackery.
I listened to him endlessly, convinced that this original, if skewed, personality had it in him to be an artist of some kind. In fact, I felt that becoming an artist would be his salvation. (He liked to paint as well as to write.) He did extremely well academically, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, graduated with high honors, and went on to graduate school in classics. But he didn't persist to the master's degree; he drifted through jobs in book stores and restaurants; and when I last heard from him, ten years after he had graduated, he was making a sort of living as a painter.
I'll always wonder, I suppose, whether I was too indulgent with this student when I had a chance to influence him. Maybe I gave him too much uncritical attention, too much uncritical listening. He needed self-discipline badly, I think, and I wish I had been able to force it on him.
I began keeping a journal, and the early entries are full of anxieties like this one, though most of them are not as well-founded. I fretted over trifles. Little mistakes which are commonplace in a teacher's day-to-day life kept me awake at night. When I corrected a student in class, and found later, on looking up the point, that I had been wrong, I agonized over what I ought to do: make an apology to the class? If a student contradicted me or was sulky or hostile, I'd assume that I had handled the matter incorrectly. When I had to confront a student with cheating, I brooded over whether I had been too lenient or too severe. Should I have invoked the moral principle alone, or dwelt more heavily on the pragmatic: cheating gets you in trouble?
I was too easily flattered. When promising students registered for a second course with me, I'd be inordinately pleased; inordinately dismayed when they didn't. I recognized the danger in this. An early journal entry:
I keep thinking how dangerous popularity must be to a teacher -- of course to any leader. I want so much for my students to like me. I want it too much, and I have done things that are against my better judgment because of this. If even the wish for popularity can pervert one's purest aims, how much more the achievement of it would do so. One would pacify one's doubts thus: "If I were a 'popular teacher', known to be so, then I could do as I thought best." But that's the way one thinks about getting rich. "Just let me be rich and then I'll do good." Actually the rich or the popular are intent on maintaining their wealth and popularity. I must not want to be popular. I must cherish every evidence that I am not.
I can't remember now what I did "against my better judgment" in order to please students, but I think I meant such things as grading too high, reducing the assignments which students complained were excessive, and giving in to students' demand for a "relevant" book instead of the classic on my reading list. I always worried about these compromises afterwards -- worried about my sins against "integrity" because I felt that every little thing I did and said was having some good or bad effect on the way these young people were growing up. I imagined my part in the process as much more important than it was. It was exhilarating and frightening to touch the future in the persons of these eighteen-year-olds.
Do all teachers experience this absorption in students? I believe many of them do, at least at the beginning of their careers. In fact a few of them build their lives on it. The "bachelor don" of English boarding school tradition, who not only teaches but lives in the dormitory or in a campus apartment, who holds long, wise colloquys after hours while smoking his inevitable pipe, who eats his meals in commons, is not unknown in American education. Priests used to fill roles like this at Catholic colleges, but unmarried laymen and laywomen also have been known to build a teaching life so engrossing that they need no spouse or children or domestic pleasures to fill it out. Their students are their children, their social life, their families. I have even known a few cases where married men and women have been more taken up with their students than with their spouses and children. I knew a woman professor who regularly stayed at her campus office through the dinner hour, leaving her husband and children to their family meal; and more than one male professor who had his regular table in the college cafeteria, where he held continuous office hours.
This total dedication to students may be the singular, perfect vocation for a rare person, but I think it has many dangers. For myself, as I look back, I see that in my first years of teaching I gave my students more attention than was wholesome either for me or for them. I could sense this even when I was in the midst of it. I wrote in my journal:
As the year speeds to a close I am so absorbed in my writing students -- their work, yes, but their personalities even more -- that I'm probably all out of kilter in relation to general living. I wonder if all teachers feel this? Perhaps when I've done it longer I'll become more cool and detached. Right now I find such fascination in these young personalities that I am -- God help me -- influencing, that nothing else seems nearly as interesting. I can see that it will be very good to say goodbye to this scene for three months.
I recognized vaguely then, and I see it more clearly now, that I could be a more effective teacher if I had a life of my own: friends, travels, relatives, enjoyments, and sorrows that had nothing to do with students. My original impulse to teach had come, after all, from the conviction that I could bring my professional experience to the aid of young people who were preparing for the world of work. How ironic it would be to shut out that wider world, and become a sort of Mrs. Chips, who had no life beyond the classroom and the college paths.
The summer after my first year of teaching was a strenuous one. To have more than three months free seemed such a luxury to a person used to business vacations, that I packed those three months full. I went to California to visit two families of New Yorkers who had moved there, the Sweeneys in Los Angeles and the Cooneys in San Francisco. Next I went to New York and stayed six weeks in a borrowed apartment while I took a course in modern poetry at New York University. This course was another step toward the Ph.D. which I had promised to get. During the six weeks I also wrote a proposal for my dissertation on Graham Greene.
Then I took a theatre tour of London, Moscow, and Leningrad. "The Bard and the Bolshoi" it was called. I saw six or seven plays in London, then ballet, opera, and folk theatre in Russia. Yes, I widened my horizons.
I came back to DePauw in late August full of zest. Here they were before me, another crop of handsome, suntanned young men and women ready to receive such wisdom and skill as I could give them. I was going to be wiser and more skillful this year.
© 2004 by Elizabeth Christman. All rights reserved.
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