This post is a personal essay, a reflection on a key time in my own educational history triggered by a visit from my high school English teacher, a guy who had an enormous influence on the direction of my life. I apologize for its length, but I didn’t think it would work to break the essay into two parts. A slightly different version of “When the Light Goes On” appeared in The American Scholar, spring 2010.
The old grade book sits between baskets of corn chips and bottles of beer, Visionaid in slanted print across the blotchy cover, a record of the year I found my way in school. The book is eight by ten inches and has quadrille-ruled pages with slots for 48 student names along the left margin, then four half pages that turn on the spiral binding to record grades and more grades as the term progresses: week 5, week 6, week 7….
I am leaning in alongside Jack McFarland, the man who taught me English in my senior year of high school well over 40 years ago. He and his wife Joan are in town for his college reunion, and we are settled in over a meal. Mr. McFarland (it still feels a little odd to call him Jack) never throws anything away. His den is floor-to-ceiling – his wife has shown me pictures – with teetering stacks of papers and books. Before coming to L.A. for the reunion, he unearthed the gradebook from my senior year. He runs his finger down the left column: Ramirez, Ray, Rose. M. Rose.
Mr. McFarland came to our small Catholic high school straight out of Columbia. He was in his mid-twenties, having second thoughts about his graduate program, and wanted to take a break to teach school. He was intense, rumpled, cigarette and coffee stained, and unlike anything I or my classmates had seen before. He paced back and forth across the front of the room jiggling a piece of chalk in his hand, turning again and again to write on the board the span of Western intellectual history, Homer to Brave New World. He brought an elite mid-century education to our unassuming and unexpecting high school.
He reads down the names – “Oh, I remember him; hmmm, don’t remember him” – and I prod his memory about the students I can recall. His wife moves to our side of the table, next to me. He turns those half-pages, noting the quizzes on The Iliad, The Aeneid, Dante and the papers we wrote on Homer, on Virgil, a book and a paper every two or three weeks, returned soon after, covered with comments. Except for a few super-achievers, we were in the deep end of the pool.
Most of the guys who attended our school – Catholic schools were then segregated by gender – came from blue-collar families. Some of us, myself included, were poor, but the parents of a fair number had worked their way into a solid middle-class life. A few came from professional families. Regardless, even the brainiest student had not worked so hard before, as the grades in that Visionaid demonstrate. During the first term of the first semester there were Cs and Ds galore.
I had several good and caring teachers in elementary school, but on the whole my education before Mr. McFarland was unexceptional. My father was ill during most of my school years, and my mother supported us by waiting tables. The only child, I had to stay close to home to care for him, and in retreat from the sickness and hardship around me, I lived a good deal in my head, not engaging much with school. I could read well, which saved me, but learned nothing of mathematics, went through the motions in social studies, couldn’t figure out grammar, and developed into the kind of average, non-descript, semi-out-of-it student I would later teach and write about.
Such kids, particularly from families who aren’t knowledgeable about school and not forceful within it, really fall through the cracks when they hit high school. My high school story is a too-typical one, not the drama of a kid in big trouble, but not a kid going anywhere either. I drifted through the curriculum, flunked algebra, got stuck in low-level courses (the coach who taught civics honest-to-God could not real aloud the textbook), was absorbed with my father’s death, oh my poor father’s slow death – and then, boom, senior year and I’m sitting in the front row of Mr. McFarland’s English class (commanded up there because I was acting the fool in the back of the room), trying to wrap my tongue around the proper names in The Iliad.
When he taught us, Mr. McFarland was serious as a heart attack. I don’t remember him laughing much, and he certainly didn’t try to entertain us. Looking back on it all, I’m a little surprised that there wasn’t a mutiny over the weight of the work. I mean, among the forty-six-soon-to-be-men packed into that room there was most of the front line of the football team, three of the school’s most feared fighters, a sampling of guys from tough neighborhoods to the south and east, and an assortment of nerdy goof-offs, me among them. But Mr. McFarland moved forward across that chalkboard: Classical Greece, to Rome, to Augustine and Aquinas, to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Hard as the work was and pissed off as some students were by it, we knew he was going all out, putting stupendous effort into reading our papers, pulling us aside after class, marching down to the administration office if he thought one of us was wronged.
Now, sitting alongside me at dinner, older, heavier, a big, bushy beard, he is in high spirits. He shakes his head at the books he assigned, and at all that writing. “You know,” he says turning to Joan laughing, “I just didn’t know I couldn’t do this…so I did it!” He starts talking about the books, full of enthusiasm, about how much he liked Conrad then, or Crime and Punishment, or, recalling his extracurricular reading in New York, Invisible Man. Then he asks me if I’ve read the new stuff he’s enjoying, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son or Alice Munro. There’s the same force of intellect, the zap of ideas that I remember, though now in a different register, downright jovial. The pleasure of recollection, perhaps. Or the sense of meaningful work, a life well-lived in the classroom.
My eye catches the column labeled Heart of Darkness. We had to write a story in Conrad’s style. It was an assignment he had appropriated from somewhere in his own college education. He pushes himself back from the table and says, “I thought, ‘Why wait till grad school to do this stuff’.”
I still remember that assignment. It was one of the papers that flipped a switch in me, that somehow began to change that crowded classroom from a place of hard work to something much more, a place that caught my fancy and helped me redefine who I was.
After dinner, after the repeated goodbyes – outside the restaurant, on the way to the parking lot, and finally as they drive away – I go home and pull down the Dell paperback Three Tales of Joseph Conrad that Mr. McFarland had assigned. “The Nellie a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails….” The brown pages come off at the seam as I turn them. I don’t throw much away either.
I’m struck as I reread Heart of Darkness by what a new kind of book this must have been for me: the thickly descriptive language, the dilatory indirection of the narrator, Marlow. I suspect that I read through long stretches of it – especially at the beginning when Marlow sets up the tale – without registering much at all.
To write something in Conrad’s style led to another first for me. Up to that point, if my memory serves me, most reading of literature in school emphasized plot and character…and maybe a show-stopping symbol or two. But now I had to get in close and examine the author’s word choice. Otherwise how could I imitate this guy’s style? This was the stuff of literary analysis, McFarland’s intention, I’m sure.
Once Marlow begins his journey up the Congo, I start finding some places where I’m marking up the pages. I’d never taken a pen to text like this, other than to underline a place or a character’s name, but here I go. This comes as Marlow seeks refuge from the sun in what turns out to be a “grave of death” populated by terribly sick African laborers:
At last I got under the tree, my purpose was to stroll into the shade for a moment; but no sooner within than it seemed to me I had stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno. The rapids were near, and an uninterrupted, uniform, headlong, rushing noise filled the mournful stillness of the grove, where not a breath stirred, not a leaf moved, with a mysterious sound – as though the tearing pace of the launched earth had suddenly become audible.
Of course, I don’t remember what I was thinking here, but I linger with the passage now, picture myself at the kitchen table bent over the book, zeroing in on sound and motion. The analysis is pretty crude. I’m underlining a lot and not differentiating very well. But I imagine myself happy, pleased with what I’m doing, using my pen to consider each word, assuming that Conrad is up to something, and I’m going to figure it out. This was heady, a skill I hadn’t learned before. Without fully understanding it, I was being guided by the assignment to a new kind of reading.
I don’t know if Mr. McFarland intended it or not, but the choice of Heart of Darkness was pedagogically astute, especially for novices like me. For though the book was difficult, and little in my background had prepared me for it, the novel’s gloomy, ominous language is thick as fog in a horror movie, discernable and available for imitation by a kid with a pretty rudimentary set of tools. Much to my surprise – and there it was right in the gradebook – I got an A-/B+ on the paper. But much, much more important, it was this kind of work for Mr. McFarland that began to turn my life around. I suppose I had been mediocre for too long and took to the challenge to think hard. And I suppose I had lived internally for too long and enjoyed this more public engagement with ideas and with school. And then there was Mr. McFarland’s unorthodox but compelling presence and the sense that in his way he was looking out for us. I wanted the guy to like me.
Until Mr. McFarland’s class, I hadn’t given much thought at all about what to do after high school. He counseled me toward his alma mater, a local Catholic university. I was admitted as a probationary student. He taught at my high school for a little while longer, and he continued to mentor me through my bumpy freshman year. Then he returned to graduate school, and from there moved north to Sacramento to teach in a community college. That’s where he met his wife. After a few years, we lost touch. I would go on to teach in elementary school, community college and job training programs, a program for returning Vietnam veterans, and an Educational Opportunity Program’s tutorial center, working for the most part with children and adults who in some way also were not prepared for school.
One day I was sitting in my office grading papers, and the phone rang. I knew the voice, felt it, before I could name it, deliberate, coming from back in the throat, elongating the vowels. It was Mr. McFarland. He had read something I wrote and looked me up. Now we see each other once or twice a year when he and Joan visit L.A.
I keep thinking about what happened to me in senior English because, long ago as it was, it directly connects to a central issue in current educational reform: how to provide a quality education to all students, particularly those who are “underprepared”, “at risk”, or in some way disconnected from school. I certainly wasn’t in dire straits, wasn’t about to flunk out or drop out, but I was aimless and unengaged, part of the great swath of the academically adrift.
I’ve taught many people since those days and have studied a lot of classrooms –some like Mr. McFarland’s, some quite different – and I’m drawn both analytically and emotionally to those moments when you see signs of the mind stirring, of people beginning to get a sense of what they can do.
Not long ago I was observing a high school program in the construction trades, a program where faculty from across the subject areas were working hard to integrate traditional academic work with trade skills. A fair number of the students had not done well in school, and the program was an attempt to better serve them, to provide a new beginning.
In the middle of the electronics classroom, the teacher had built the frame of a very small house. The frame was bare except for wires running across and through the beams, some wall switches, various light fixtures, and a power panel, door open. Students would test their skills on this simulated residence, and, on the day of my visit, two students were hooking up all sorts of lights and running the wires to the power panel.
There was a group of younger students present, new boys and girls just entering the program. The teacher got a nod from the two students that they were ready, so he walked over to the classroom’s central power source and ceremoniously flipped a switch. The whole house lit up! Ceiling lights, wall lights, floods. “Wow,” exclaimed one of the younger students under his breath. “Man,” he said, “that’s crazy!”
I know, son. It is crazy. See where it leads you. Then hold it close and run with it.
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