I can remember the precise instant I realized literature wasn’t some obscure symbolic pursuit but a set of lives speaking directly to me. It was in my second-period English class in ninth grade. Our teacher, Mr. Farrell, picked up a copy of The Catcher in the Rye and read us the first chapter.
Nearly every person I know has some version of this story: the moment when a teacher changes the course of your life. A good teacher, after all, wields the authority of a parent with none of the psychological baggage. The best of them are semi-mysterious figures whose wisdom seems boundless and whose approval helps us discover who we are.
But my own experiences as a teacher have reminded me, over and over, how sacred and fragile this arrangement is. When I first got to Boston, for instance, I spent several years as an adjunct professor of creative writing. I was long on enthusiasm and short on tact, eager to preach the gospel of literature to undergraduates but — as I can see more clearly now — passionate in a way that made less talented students feel shunted aside.
“If writing was a part of my body,” one such student wrote on her teacher evaluation form, “I would cut it off with an X-Acto blade.” That was certainly disturbing to read. But it was even more disturbing to realize how much power I’d held over her and how sloppily I’d wielded it. It’s this power imbalance that movies and media tend to exploit. Teachers are portrayed as one of two stereotypes: inspirational heroes or predatory villains.
The truth is a lot less dramatic. Teaching, especially at the primary and secondary levels, isn’t about giving grandiose speeches or playing the Svengali. It’s about managing classrooms full of kids at very different places intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically. It’s about prepping students for standardized tests when you’d rather be fostering their imaginations. Most of all, it’s about the thousands of small acts of attention, of encouragement and guidance and discipline, by which a teacher transmits his passion for learning to his charges. Standing before a class, you have to portray your best self — fair, patient, wise — for hours on end.
This spring, for the first time in a decade, I’m teaching at a college again. I’m making rookie mistakes. I’ve come to class insufficiently prepared. I’ve allowed students to hijack discussions. I’ve made lame jokes. But I hope I’m also doing the students some good. That’s one of the harsh truths about teaching: You don’t always see the complete impact of your best work. You witness a few initial sparks, not the full flame of knowledge it can ignite within a student.
Which is why it was such a treat last month to encounter a former student of mine from Boston College. A few years older and a few pounds heavier, Patrick is a published novelist with another book in the works. He remembered our time together more vividly than I did.
Of course, now that my own children are in school, I see how much teachers matter every day, how they loom over my kids like benevolent gods. Still, it can be easy to forget. It was my dad, for instance, who pointed out that I’d named my second daughter, Rosalie, after my favorite teacher in grade school.
As for Mr. Farrell, he’s retired but still living in my hometown. I know this because I met his wife at a reading last year. I immediately launched into a reverie about all he’d meant to me and signed one of my books for him. Mrs. Farrell looked pleased but unsurprised. Clearly, it wasn’t the first book her husband had inspired.