A Teacher's Lament, Then and Now

In his 1962 essay titled "A Dog in Brooklyn, a Girl in Detroit: A Life among the Humanities," from The Age of Happy Problems, Herbert Gold recounts how "neither glory nor pleasure nor power, and certainly not wisdom, provided the goal of [the] students" he attempted to instruct.

Attempting to teach a college-level humanities course, Gold "could classify [his] students in three general groups, intelligent, mediocre, and stupid, allowing for the confusions of three general factors – background, capacity, and interest."

Reminiscing about his attempt to motivate young people, Gold admits that he "often failed at inspiring [his] students to do the assigned reading.  Many of them had part-time jobs in the automobile industry or its annexes."  Thus, the plaintive "I couldn't read the book this week, I have to work" reverberated in the classroom with "its implied reproach for a scholar's leisure."  Continuing to describe the paradoxes of teaching in a university, Gold finds little common ground between himself and his students.

When he attempted to explain Seurat's "La Grande Jatte" and the "importance of ... pointillism to students who only wanted to see life clear and true, see it comfortably," he encountered students who asserted that "this kind of painting hurt [their] eyes."  In addition, students clamored that "there was too much reading for one course – 'piling it on.  This isn't the only course we take.'"  

Then, in the middle of his essay, Gold details how, in front of the school building, a skidding truck sideswiped a taxi, and the cab "was smashed like a cruller."  From the door of his cab, the driver emerged, stumbling holding his head.  There was blood on his head and hands.  He was in confusion and in shock – "[d]rivers turned their heads upon him ... but did not get involved." 

Gold ran out to lead the cab-driver into the building and told a student to call for an ambulance.  Before the ambulance arrived, the police were there – but they did not seem to be alarmed by the injuries of the cabbie.  Instead, they wanted to see his driver's license and then his chauffeur's license.  They were not concerned with Gold's anxiety for the bleeding man.  They had "their business" to attend to – i.e., going through the cab-driver's pockets looking for possible weapons.

Meanwhile, the students were getting restless, and the ambulance had not yet arrived.  So Gold gave one of his students a dime to make the call again.  By now the cab driver was fading away.  Finally, a "puffing ambulance intern rushed into the room."

And then, the dénouement – against the backdrop of a winter storm, a bleeding cab-driver, self-important police officers doing their jobs, and a classroom of indifferent students, Gold has to face off with one of his students who, enraged, cries out in the middle of all this that "[she doesn't] think [she] deserved a D on that quiz.  'I answered all the questions.  I can't get my credit for Philo of Ed without I get a B off you.'" 

The improbable juxtaposition of this was just too much for Gold.

I must have looked at her with pure stupidity on my face.  There is a Haitian proverb: stupidity won't kill you, but it'll make you sweat a lot.  She took the opportunity to make me sweat, took my silence for guilt, took my open-mouthed gaze for weakness.

And then she said "If I was a white girl, you'd grade me easier."

Guilt, a hundred years, a thousand years of it; pity for the disaster of ignorance and fear, pity for ambition rising out of ignorance[.]  I looked at her with mixed feelings.  

She was talking and I was yelling in a whisper about the sick man.  She was blaming me for all her troubles, all the troubles she had seen, and I was blaming her for not seeing what lay before her.

The next day Gold tried to explain to this student that there were two questions at issue: "her exam grade and her choice of occasion to dispute it."  He tried to explain to this female student "why putting the two events together had disturbed" him.

To no avail.

As a teacher, Gold realized that he caught his students too late "and only at the top of their heads, at the raw point of pride and ambition, and [he] had not enough love and pressure as a teacher to open the way through their intentions to the common humanity which remains locked within."

As another school year begins anew, the eternal quest to give intellectual, moral, and social instruction to young people remains elusive.

We "must find a way to teach better and to learn."  The need is greater than ever.

Eileen can be reached at middlemarch18@gmail.com.

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