Two scenes from my early years at DePauw are linked in my memory. I believe they happened only a few days apart. The first: I came back to my flat a little after midnight from some college function. Heard the phone ringing as I was unlocking the door. Hurried to answer it, without even closing the door, fearful that it might mean illness or death in my family. Relieved that it was Rick Bellinger, a student, who was in New York on a semester's internship. I had helped him get this internship with George Plimpton at The Paris Review.
I was glad to hear from him, even though at that moment he was sunk in discouragement. George Plimpton had gone over some of his manuscripts with him and pointed out many flaws. Though Rick realized how fortunate he was to have professional criticism from such a person, he felt hurt and deflated. We talked for awhile about this, and about other experiences he was having in New York, which were exciting and maturing for a 20-year-old midwesterner. He said he felt better for talking it over. At the end of our conversation I told him I'd call him soon, and he said, rather touchingly, "I hope you will." I felt very pleased with myself for being able to help and counsel him.
In the second scene, I saw an old lady crossing a street in downtown Greencastle, watching her footing carefully, dignified and solitary. She wore a neat, flowered cotton dress, and had her hair in a bun. I put myself in her place. I imagined her small, quiet house, her uneventful days, her few visitors, her rare phone calls. The day would come, I reflected, when my phone would not ring at midnight, nor at any other time, with an anxious young voice needing advice. Teaching would be over for me, and with it, most of the encounters and demands would be over too.
Oh, there would be demands. There are always people in need. But there wouldn't be the same glamor in chatting with some lonely old person or cheering up some pitiful loser as in encouraging a young man or woman who could really affect the future. Yes, there was glamor for me in teaching the young: having something to give them and giving it. What about the future, Mrs. Chips, I asked myself. What would my life be when I could no longer teach?
It was eighteen years ago that I watched that old lady prefiguring my own old age. I had the good fortune to be able to teach much longer than I ever dreamed I would. But now, twenty years after Bruce Schilt in Advanced Freshman English nodded vigorously to my pronouncements about the active voice, I have stepped away from the college lectern.
But there's always teaching of some kind to be done, as long as health and sense endure. For instance, there's teaching old people. When I taught an Elderhostel course in fiction writing the students never looked bored. They were there because they wanted to be there, not to earn a grade or get a job. They were pleased with everything. My students in Creative Writing at Forever Learning Institute (a school for people over 55) are similarly receptive. This kind of teaching is soothing to the ego. In fact, it's too soothing. I find myself wallowing unhealthily in compliments.
Besides that, I wonder intermittently if it is honest to teach fiction-writing to men and women over sixty. Is it honest to try to teach people something that they'll never succeed at? What I mean is that anyone who really wants to write will have learned to do it somehow or other before that age. It's like trying to teach ballet to old people, or singing. Of course if they want to try ballet for the exercise or singing so as to improve the parish choir, it makes sense to teach them. But there's almost nothing you can use a story for unless you can publish it. By giving a course in writing I seem to be implicitly encouraging the idea that these students may be able to publish. But the limited fiction outlets, combined with the modest skill of these old story-tellers, makes publication almost out of the question.
I have some of the same misgivings about teaching fiction-writing in an adult education program or at a writers' conference. My few experiences in this line have taught me that 99% of the registrants are there because they hope to find the magic key to getting their hopeless documents published. A writer will bring me a four-hundred-page novel; the paper has lost its crispness, and the details of plot and setting betray its age. Obviously it has been to many writers' conferences and has waited its turn in many publishers' slush piles. Yet the writer is pitifully hoping that I know some trick that will bring him a publisher's contract. This would be comic if it weren't so sad.
At writers' conferences the students are eager to talk about how much magazines pay, and how movie rights are handled. Before they have written the story, they want to know what advance they may be able to get on it. They would like to write something that is in demand. "What are publishers looking for these days?" they often ask me. Once I heard a veteran teacher give a good answer to this question. "If I knew what publishers are looking for I would immediately write it," he said.
I felt ashamed of accepting my fee at one writers' conference. Besides giving a workshop, my assignment was to judge the short story contest being held in connection with the conference. There were only two entries, both feeble. I had to decide which of these was to receive the first prize of $100 and which the second prize of $50. As I sat at the closing dinner and saw these writers glowing with satisfaction as they accepted their prizes, I felt disgusted with myself for being a party to this. It was wrong to encourage such mediocre efforts. Nobody but me and the director of the conference knew that there had been but two entries. After this I resolved to have no more to do with writers' conferences.
Five years ago I got into a kind of teaching that has its own peculiar satisfaction: teaching adult illiterates to read. First I had to take a two-day workshop given by the Literacy Council of St. Joseph County. I learned the Laubach Method of teaching adults to read, and soon I had a pupil. Juan Garcia was a man in his forties, without a full-time job. His wife worked, and the couple lived with her parents, so Juan's livelihood was taken care of. But he was a capable auto mechanic, he assured me, and wanted to get a job at a service station. Such a job required a certificate, for which he would have to take an examination. That's why he needed to learn to read.
His parents had been migrant workers. They "followed the crops," picking tomatoes in July and August in the midwest, moving north for apples, and then in winter went down to Florida for the citrus fruit. "I never went to school when I was a kid," Juan said. "And then when I got to be eighteen it was too late."
When I first sat down side-by-side with him and opened Skill Book I of the Laubach series, he could not read one word, did not know the alphabet, could not count either in English or in Spanish. He could painstakingly sign his name, and print his address. That was it. When I showed him a quarter and asked him what it was, he could not answer either "quarter" or "twenty-five cents." His wife, he said, did the shopping.
The Laubach Method is a combination of phonics and word recognition, with phonics very much emphasized. It is slow and repetitious, boring for the teacher except that the goal is so urgent. To help a student master such a basic and crucial skill as reading is an aim which counteracts the notion of tedium. The pupil's progress is at about the rate of grass growing. Yet one day he reads a sentence he hasn't seen before, and both pupil and teacher experience exhilaration.
Yet the teacher's patience may outlast the student's. After a year of teaching him, I thought Juan's progress was satisfactory, but he was discouraged. He was certainly far from being able to read a manual of car repair. He began to miss his tutoring sessions, pleading ill health. Finally he stopped coming. I suppose he had expected that in a year he would be able to pass his mechanic's examination and get his certificate. When he saw that years of study lay between him and his goal he simply gave up.
Not so, another of my students. Clemmie Sistrunk was in his sixties when I began to tutor him, a gentle, dignified black man who had earned his living and raised his family without ever reading a word. He was a religious man, and now that he was semi-retired he wanted to learn to read so that he could read the Bible. He, too, probably imagined that in a year or so he would be able to take his turn with the other members of his church at reading aloud from the Scriptures.
Clemmie was even slower than Juan, perhaps because he was older. Like Juan, he knew nothing, not even the alphabet, when he began. But his biggest handicap was that he had no phonic sense, and it was almost impossible for him to sound out words. Moreover he had grown up pronouncing many common words in a way that didn't help him to recognize them by their spelling. He always said "wif" for "with," and I could not get him to change. He couldn't hear the difference when I pronounced it, and couldn't see the difference when I faced him with my tongue between my teeth. He pronounced "ear" as "year." His pronunciation of "now" was something like "naaa"; "throw" was "thow", and "through" was "thew." For "afraid" he said "athread." He also had some kind of dyslexia, frequently reversing the letters of a word to get a different word.
With all these difficulties, he had an immense persistence. After two years of tutoring, his goal of being able to read the Bible was still far in the distance, but he kept on. After I had been teaching him for three years I was pretty discouraged myself, but I couldn't give up in the face of his endurance. I began to try him on some short psalms in the Good News version of the Bible. Perhaps it was because biblical phrases were a little familiar, or perhaps it was because at last he was reading what he wanted to read, but whatever the reason, he did a little better than he had been doing on the Laubach texts. In a few months he was able to struggle, with some help, through a few passages of the New Testament.
Unfortunately the church he went to used the King James version. Each week he would bring in the booklet with the readings for the next Sunday, and we would go over the old-fashioned text, with its obsolete words, obsolete verb endings, and reversals of modern sentence order. A verse we labored over:
But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?
"Bowels of compassion." A hard concept for a man who can scarcely read.
There's no conclusion to this story. As I write, I am still meeting Clemmie every week to grapple with next Sunday's scripture lesson. Will he ever be able to read it without twenty promptings from me, and a dozen digressions into phonics and spellings? I don't know.
This kind of teaching is purer than other kinds I have done. Most teachers will grant that to be successful in a classroom you must be something of a ham. The teacher's job is something like an actor's. You show off, you do stunts, you pose, you cultivate your quirks and mannerisms, all for the necessary purpose of catching and keeping the interest of your students. Like an actor, you enjoy your effects. When the students laugh at your witticism, which you may have crafted carefully so that it will seem spontaneous, your ego gets a lift. You dilate upon the beautiful scene in The Scarlet Letter where Hester Prynne takes down her hair, and the classroom becomes hushed -- you feel something of what an opera singer must feel as she spins out an exquisite pianissimo. But the teacher's personal gratifications, even when they result in advancing the students' learning, have a taint in them.
There is no opportunity for hamming when you are one-to-one with a nonreader. You may devise stunts and special effects to help the pupil, and they may even be ingenious, but the pupil does not flatter you on your cleverness. The pupil is too innocent to recognize it. He finds all knowledge mysterious and he reveres all teachers. The whole lesson focuses on the matters to be learned, with the teacher's personality irrelevant. That is why I say this is a purer kind of teaching. It's totally workmanlike, with no play of vanity in it. The austerity of it seems appropriate to the older years, when one should be shedding vanity and artifice, preparing to meet the Undeceivable Gaze.
What first drew me into teaching was the thought that I could help young writers develop their creative talent. I hoped to nourish novelists and short story writers and steer them towards publication and success. I imagined how proud I would be to see by-lines of authors whom I had once hectored about wordiness and the passive voice. Perhaps they would send me autographed copies of their books and thank me for getting them started.
These romantic imaginings have not been realized -- at least not to the extent that I expected. Two young women I taught at DePauw, Leslie Baird and Judy Long, did publish books, and Judy even dedicated her book to me. Jim King at Notre Dame wrote a book worthy of being published, I thought. I helped him write letters and send sections of it to publishers, but he never succeeded in getting a contract. Tom Ainlay in Tokyo has published a great many articles. He's a prolific writer, and the most industrious free-lancer I've ever known. He also wrote a novel, and when he wasn't able to get a publisher to take it on, he published and promoted it himself, with fair success. A number of my students are reporters or feature writers for newspapers.
But this is a skimpy record compared to what I hoped to achieve. It's not because I haven't had talented students but because the talented students are not sufficiently persistent. They want to get an A in the fiction-writing course, but after they have written a good story and got the A, they don't go on to refine the story, retype it, send it to an editor, send it to another, revise it again, try other editors. They don't continue to write other stories after the course is over. Rarely does a former student bring or send me a new manuscript. "I love to write," they say. They like the deadlines and discipline of a course which makes them write. They are happy to have their talent confirmed, but that's it. In short, they are not writers.
Maybe colleges are not the best places to find real writers. Hemingway didn't go to college, Scott Fitzgerald never finished, Faulkner had no degree, nor did Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, or Sherwood Anderson. Even the Master, Henry James, dropped out of Harvard after a year or so, recognizing his matriculation there as a "false step." Notre Dame and DePauw students do not undertake their expensive educations in order to become writers but in order to get good jobs and make money. Even those who genuinely love literature and want to create it, do not want it enough to accept the poverty and the years of unrewarded toil that is commonly the artist's lot.
But if my hopes of nurturing promising novelists haven't been realized, I have helped many students improve their skill at the day-to-day writing which must be done in nearly every kind of job and profession. Often my former students tell me that their bosses and supervisors have praised their ability to write clear, vigorous prose. Entirely aside from its value in their working lives, the ability to use language well contributes in a larger way to human well-being. I like to quote to my students what Dag Hammarsjold said in Markings;
Respect for the word -- to employ it with scrupulous care and an incorruptible heartfelt love of truth -- is essential if there is to be any growth in a society or in the human race. To misuse the word is to show contempt for man. It undermines the bridges and poisons the wells. It causes Man to regress down the long path of his evolution.
Besides teaching students, I've taught myself. The best way to learn a thing, they say, is to teach it. By the constant concentration on what makes good writing, close examination of both good and bad examples, tireless reiteration to my students of such principles as "prefer the concrete to the abstract," I've improved my own writing, Even if my students haven't written many novels, I have written five. And it was teaching that got me started.
The Notre Dame campus is beautiful in September. All summer long the chirping sprinklers have kept the lawns thick and green. How charmingly these lawns are populated with sunburned young men and women in shorts, hurrying or dawdling to their classes. September in campus life is the new year, and it feels full of resolution and promise.
Each September I relished this beginning more keenly, realizing that there couldn't be many more for me. Having found my true calling late in life, I have nothing but gratitude for the universities who took a chance on me and the colleagues who welcomed me into their fortunate circles. Leaving these circles, I take with me the memory of charmed years. What a treasure memory is! "They can't take that away from me," as the old Fred Astaire song says. Those golden September campuses can't fade or fray.
© 2004 by Elizabeth Christman. All rights reserved.
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