Amazing. I was going through a box of junk, old letters and such, and found an article, dated 1963, reporting the winners of the essay contest in my local area. It reads in part: “William ranks fifth in his class. He is looking forward to a career in teaching though the field of his major hasn’t been decided.” I am William—god, I hate that. Mostly I just forget that’s my first name. But what’s amazing is the career in teaching part. That must have been the old lady talking because I don’t remember having thought about teaching as a career, except maybe as something I had a pretty good chance at doing.
But that’s how it turned out. Teaching has been my primary source of income since 1973. That’s about 33 years of teaching, I guess. At one point, I thought, when I got my PhD, I would be a professor instead. That doesn’t involve much teaching. But that didn’t work out and I became a teacher of writing at a University. That’s what I have done most of my adult life.
Looking back I think maybe it was in the cards. The title of my PhD thesis was: “Romantic Thought: Education and Alienation.” Seems as if I had been thinking about education all along—and alienation too, as part of that. For a long time I thought about writing a book for which I have only the title, “Growing Up Educated” which is supposed to be an allusion to another book called, “Growing Up Absurd.” I guess that’s because I decided somewhere along the line that education as it is currently practiced is not all that it’s cracked up to be.
But I was lucky, I suppose, in a way. Because I turned out to be pretty good at the teaching racket. I have always taken it really seriously. I think about it a lot; and I feel almost that I have been given a sort of public trust, and I should try to live up to that trust and do the best job that I can. But I have wondered why I have stuck it out so long. The reason could be pretty simple: fear of unemployment. I shouldn’t minimize that reason because I don’t think I have ever fully grasped how much those early poverty years filled me with a deep fear of there being no limit to how far a person could fall.
But I don’t think fear makes a person good at teaching. And I think I am pretty good and I have thought a good deal about why that might be. I am not sure I have reached the bottom of it. But one day I visited an elementary school class in creative movement that my wife teaches and afterwards the kids were all putting their shoes back on. But one kid was left there. He was retarded, as people used to say, or developmentally disabled, as they say now, and I could see that the idea of tying his shoes was wearing him out.
So I went over, knelt down, tied his shoes, and when I was done, instinctively, tapped the side of his shoe to indicate I was done and he got up and left wordlessly. I sat there realizing that I had tapped a lot of shoes in my day. One brother is seven years younger than I, another 14, and I do believe I had tied and tapped their shoes a good deal in the years before Velcro. In some complex or confused way, my being a teacher and being good at it and still receiving some satisfaction from doing it is related to tying my brothers’ shoe laces.