Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Concerning two students

"You don't want to be me--you want to be better than me." Thus sayeth King (Lebron) James in the tagline for his new Nike commercial.

When I saw it on Sunday, I thought, Okay. Catchy. Inspiring, even. Does he wear the shoes he's pitching, or--so as to allow others the chance to be better, does he keep on wearing what, I assume, are shoes that are inferior to the ones he's pitching? And then the game came back on and I stopped wondering. But then later that day via an e-mail exchange with a former student and a conversation yesterday with a current student, I found myself thinking about that commercial and realized something:

I think I'm doing something wrong.

You see, I do my best as an instructor to make clear to my students in various spoken and unspoken ways that teaching English is somewhat akin to how that nun in Don DeLillo's novel White Noise feels as she's addressing JAK Gladney: "If you believed, we wouldn't have to." Emphasis on "have." There's the course content, but there's also the Life of an English Instructor, an existence that, as I mentally gird up my loins and reread the readings I've assigned or contemplate the just-turned-in stacks of first essays for this newly-begun half-semester (What? Already?!), at times makes me feel a deep, even spiritual kinship with Sisyphus. Yes, I tell and show them (see? Good pedagogical technique! Multiple ways of conveying that which is being taught!): mine is a life in which, Job-like, I mentally don sackcloth and ashes and cry out to the gods I call deans and my department chair, "Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?"

And yet: within the space of 24 hours, that former and that current student told me that a) they had come to the conclusion that teaching English was a Good Thing for them to pursue as a goal; and b) that I had something to do with their decision.

"[Your Anglo-Saxon-rooted expletive of choice here]," I thought.

It's hard to wail via e-mail, so I didn't do that in my correspondence with my former student. In my conversation with my current student, though, I could not help it: "Oh, [current student]! Please tell me something I said or didn't say is not the cause of this!" I cried out, my voice echoing up and down the stairwell. (See?? Even my daily route from my office to my classrooms mimics Sissyphus's . . . and a coincidence?-I-think-not! alert: In Spanish, one word for "classroom" is aula; the word for "cage" is jaula). My current student thought I was joking, though, and smiled broadly at me as she said that, yes, I was the cause of this decision--though she did also say that secretly she'd always loved English.

(That did bring me some comfort, I must admit: Her malady is in part genetic and not entirely environmental in origin.)

She wanted to know, now that she had become thus afflicted, what she should do about it. So we talked. You gotta know other stuff besides the usual "English" stuff, I told her, since people who write poems and such have the distressing habit of writing about stuff besides the writing of poetry and such. You know the adage: "Those who can, do. Those who can't, write poems and such. And those who can't write poems and such, teach them." So we gotta know enough about those things which we can't actually, like, you know, do, in order to, like, talk about them.

But here is why I'm writing all this: as I talked with each of these students about their decision--as I earnestly and honestly conveyed to them that this decision didn't exactly guarantee them gainful employment, much less the sort of income that'd make them want to cash their paycheck and dump the resulting currency on their beds and then roll around in it, I admit to feeling a sort of happiness--not the perverse happiness the Pied Piper must have felt as he led all those children to who-knows-where, but more like that happiness that Camus attributes to, of all people, the aforementioned Sisyphus:

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
But then King (Lebron) James's admonition comes re-echoing down the pike that is my memory, and so I want to tell these students, in all seriousness: You indeed do want to be better than me [sic].


Joel said...

Beautiful, John.

Winston said...

You, like, know enough stuff to, you know, take the students' mimicry as the highest form of, you know, like, adulation and praise. It's that Hallmark card commercial that I'm sure you have seen -- the one involving an elderly professor and a former student. You can aspire to or achieve no higher goal, John.

Each of us, if we do anything at all, influences those around us, especially the younger ones coming up behind us. Sometimes our influence propels them to higher levels of achievement. Other times, we might be a warning buoy that they learn to avoid.

At one time I had a bumper sticker that read: "My mission is to serve as a bad example."

R. Sherman said...

I've been thinking about this and discussing it with the EMBLOS for a couple of days. I may have to post something.

In the meantime, and off topic, here's another post on The Road for your enjoyment. McCarthy's legions grow?


Ashley said...

You're only doing something wrong by doing what you do so well. Regardless of whether or not Lebron James gets paid to wear Nikes or not, he promotes his sport simply because, he's GOOD. Anytime someone does something well, they are a candidate for inspiration. And despite your "anti-promotional" campaign for your career, you are not only a great professor, but you don't pretend that what you do is easy. Athletes lack this form of genuineness; sure they profess to have worked so hard for so many years, but now life is good (and they are LOADED).
(And by the way... I'm SERIOUSLY looking into editing.)

Anonymous said...

Better a fine role model than a poor one no?

John B. said...

Thanks, everyone, for the kind comments.

The curious who read this far may like to know that Ashley, above, is the Former Student mentioned in the post.

Pam said...

Really nice post.

Winston's comment about the bumper sticker made me laugh. I have one of those 'demotivational' posters in my office that says something like 'the sole purpose of my life is merely to serve as a warning to others.'

When my students stay in science, I always say, as you so eloquently wrote: "[Your Anglo-Saxon-rooted expletive of choice here]," I thought.