In the spring of 2001 I was having coffee one day with my old (very old) friend Tom Davis down at Saywell's (R.I.P.) in Hudson. Tom, chair of the English Department at Western Reserve Academy, had been instrumental in hiring Joyce and me back in 1979, and we had remained good friends through the years.
|Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley|
(And will go on: I'm currently at work on a memoir--Frankenstein Sundae: Chasing Mary Shelley--which deals with those years of fierce obsession.)
Link to book). Oh, and I was considerably, uh, more poor as a result of my obsessions (book purchases, travel, etc.).
And Tom was saying, innocently (I think): "You know, we have three openings in the English Department for next year."
"How about two?" I asked.
Well, it took awhile--some negotiations--but in the fall of 2001, there I was, about to turn 57, back at WRA, the school from which I stalked away in a salary snit in the spring of 1981. Twenty years earlier (for those of you arithmetically challenged).
I had not taught since January 1997--and I had not taught in a high school since 1981. True, I had not exactly been asleep during those years (lots of reading and travel and writing), but I had to start--cliche coming--from scratch.
I was assigned to teach three sections of English III (American literature + Hamlet) and one of what they called Senior Seminar, a course for all seniors during which they would read Plato and Nietzsche and some other dudes I didn't understand. Oh well: The sign of a great teacher is one who can convince students that he knows what she's talking about.
American literature I have loved for a long, long time--since childhood when I met Mark Twain and some others; it was a love that flowered, though, at Hiram College (1962-1966), where I fell under the cerebral sway of Prof. Abe C. Ravitz (now a FB friend!), from whom I took SEVEN courses, most of them in American lit. I took more Amer lit at KSU in grad school, and I read contemporary American lit compulsively.
Still ... I had never taught it, systematically, so that first year was a nightmare of designing the course, reading the texts (some of which--Scarlet Letter, for example, I had not read in decades), planning the classes. Not to mention grading papers, etc.
Oh, and since WRA is a boarding school, there were all those other sweet duties: dining hall, dormitory, committees, weekend duties, study hall, coaching (which I avoided by teaching Senior Sem). Among the requirements for Senior Seminar, by the way, was a major research paper. I spent my entire spring vacation that year grading them.
But what about the classes?
It was a slow start for me. I had donned, once again, that cloak of an "academic," and it didn't fit very well. I like to play too much (and say inappropriate things in class). But I tried for the first few weeks to be Don Dyer, a persona which some (many? most?) of the students found less than delightful.
One day Tom Davis said to me, "You don't seem to be having as much fun in class as you used to."
That hit home, as they say. And I mellowed a bit, had a much better time.
One student, though--a young woman--did not like me from the git-go. When she got her papers back (always with grades below what she knew she deserved), she would bustle off to her previous teacher to complain about Don Dyer--or Dire Dyer--or whatever. She was rude in class--sarcastic. One day, I remember, while I was expatiating about something absolutely crucial to the survival of the human species, I looked over at her: Her back was turned to me, and she was engaged in a merry conversation with a classmate. I barked. She barked back. Bark, bark, bark.
Some weeks/months later, as I mellowed and as the kids and I began to get along pretty (very?) well, she stopped after class and apologized for her earlier behavior. I think I did, too. But maybe I didn't.
So ... there were some initial weeks of dealing with Who is this new guy? And Why don't we ever laugh in here? And grumblings about how some kids wished they'd been assigned to one of the other English III teachers.
But then the dark clouds lightened; the sun peeked his head out now and then--then emerged completely. And I had a great ten-year time at WRA (the final nine years of which were part-time: too old for the Full Meal Deal), a time interrupted a couple of times by illness (Bell's palsy, prostate cancer), a time that ended in the spring of 2011 when, my health once again iffy and some curricular changes emerging (changes I had no strength--or maybe will--to battle), I retired for the final time and rode off into the sunset.
Where I found Facebook and Twitter and blogs and a New Electronic Classroom! "O brave new world!" young Miranda cries when she sees young men for the first time in The Tempest. Brave, to her, meant grand or worthy--and so it means to me these days when I have no committee meetings and dorm duty and paper-grading.
But I do have thousands of students I remember with love and gratitude. And some of them, I know, return the favor.