The teacher's talisman

June 03, 1994|By Stephen Vicchio

THOSE of us who teach consider the year to begin Sept. 1 and to drag on, sometimes interminably, to the beginning of June. The rest is recuperation.

No other job could dispossess and incapacitate one so completely as teaching. You could work all year in a toll booth or on an assembly line, you could work as a bank teller or change flat tires, and at the end of the year still remain, more or less, in possession of all, or nearly all, of your mental faculties. For teachers, there is not a chance.

Teaching obliterates all who do it well. It cuts right into one's being. It takes over the spirit. It drags the real you out of the most clever hiding places and displays it before some of the best and worst critics on Earth -- the students.

Among those critics are some who are not ready to be taught. They did not buy their books at the beginning of the term and wonder impatiently about the secrets to be found there. They close their books and notebooks five minutes before a class is to end. They practice the most intricate forms of out-of-the-body experience, while pushing a pencil across a soon-to-be-discarded notebook. These days I see too many students who are not ready to learn. They see me, and my work, as irrelevant, as annoyances to be climbed over or walked around on their way to wherever they think they are going.

These students frequently see their education as a series of inoculations, in which they grudgingly submit to a painful shot of history, philosophy or literature, so they don't succumb to them later. These students don't read newspapers, they don't go to plays or museums, and they have never been to a classical concert.

I see these students walk across the stage at graduation and I know we have failed them. They waive their diplomas over their heads as though they are talismans. They have become official possessors of knowledge, and they come to believe that society now owes them something.

If these students were all that were to be found in my classroom, I would not have taught beyond my first year.

Fortunately, there is another kind of story to tell. This story has many plots and various characters. There are innumerable themes, but the constant one is courage.

Four years ago a student walked into my office. The year before she had been homeless. She suffered from depression and a vexing array of family problems. After several conversations, she finally told me she wanted to be a philosophy professor.

At first, I thought the idea was preposterous. Over the next seven semesters, she took seven courses with me. During that time, she taught me how bad a judge of character I can be.

In April, this gentle and courageous woman gained admission to graduate programs at Harvard, Yale, Drew, American University and the University of Chicago. She has accepted a $128,000 scholarship at Chicago. She hopes to study medieval philosophy.

This, of course, is a dramatic tale. I could tell you others. They may not glow in the dark like this one, but they possess the same kind of courage. There is the young woman with three small boys and a disabled daughter. She always completes assignments and asks good questions.

There is also the 21-year-old graduate who will be married in a few days to a military man who will fly to Korea without her next month. She spent the spring acting in a Shakespeare play, working on independent study, editing a book and worrying about her future -- while making A's.

Indeed, if 20 years of teaching undergraduates has taught me anything, it is that the highest forms off courage are not just the instinctive acts of men who risk their lives for friends or fellow soldiers. There are more enduring forms of courage than the momentary acts of bravery of which our culture seems so fond. There is also the silent courage that endures for years, against great odds, for the sake of wisdom and art.

One of the major reasons I will return to the classroom in the fall is because of these other smaller tales of hope and fortitude that are seldom told. I secretly carry them around with me.

For the summer, they are my talismans.

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame, which held its commencement Saturday.

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