On Dead Men and Living Arguments, or Time Changes Everything

I had a teacher once.  The kind that teaches you by modeling your polar opposite.

We were reading a Keats poem.  Someone offered their interpretation.

“No,” she said, and informed us how to understand the poem.  I furrowed my brow.  Now, I was no huge fan of poetry at the time, but I felt the whole point of English class in general was that any thinking person could grab a B so long as they could defend their opinion.

So, naturally, I pushed the point.  She cut me off.

“Keats is dead,” she snapped.

So are most people in history, but I wasn’t convinced she’d made any point at all, leave alone a relevant one to understanding the poem.  But before I’d even opened my mouth to argue, she loomed above me and gave her final word.

My intepretation is the one that matters.  I’m telling you what Keats meant.”

Yowza.  This was essentially the end of my high grade in English.

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.

~ Mark Twain (autodidact)

I had had another English teacher a few years earlier.  This woman was slightly wild.  She was prone to doing things like tearing up a student’s paper if she felt it was lacking in respect and effort.  In front of the entire class.  And then jumping on its tatters.  When we took exams, she’d turn some classical music way up high and then walk out, as if in that way inspiration or enlightenment would seep into our shriveled brains.  Day in and day out, she frenetically stared at us during class with a mad intensity that seemed ill-matched with our leaden prose and feeble grasp of literature.

In a word, she was interesting if somewhat frightening.

Then one day she got my goat too.  She had us debating opposite sides of various arguments.  The topic was shyness.  Everything was going normally, and then she zoomed into banshee mode, insisting suddenly that shy people were selfish people, refusing to share of themselves with the world.  I was a shy person at the time, and felt unfairly skewered.

I burned with embarrassment as I struggled to argue in as respectful a way as possible.  She clawed into my argument and I twisted to keep standing, but stand I did.  I left class feeling angry but validated.  I really hated her that day.  I know probably no-one else in my class would remember that day, but it was a pretty big one for me.  She’d made me so mad.

The time would come when I’d have to change my mind.  No more could I find her simply intimidating or single-minded. Nuance crept in where a teenager knew not to tread.

No person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow.

~ Alice Walker

New York is a brash city, and if you want to taste all it has to offer, you gotta have the gumption to go for it.  I walked into a gyro joint one cold night two years ago, escaping the cold with a friend.  We squeezed into a tiny booth, one of two tables in the warm haven. Something smelled delicious.  I turned around; the two guys behind us were just sitting down with a gyro.  Looked good, but was it worth it?

“Hey,” I nodded. “Is that good?”

The one nearer me nodded, his mouth full.  Then he pushed his plate toward me. “Want a bite?”

“Thanks!” I said, and I partook.

Can you believe that?  I seriously leaned over the booth and took a huge bite out of this guy’s meal.

Is my point clear, odd though it be?

That day, so long ago, in that South African classroom with my intimidating and bizarre English teacher, I somehow stopped being painfully shy.

Of course, my partner point is that English teachers are nutters.  And then there’s my tertiary point.

Who needs to make up characters when one’s got teachers?

Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty

Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty


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About sputnitsa

Born in the US, I grew up in Africa and the West Indies, and returned stateside in my teens. After a decade in international development, democracy work, and inclusivity training for domestic NGOs, I joined Peace Corps, and after a year, experienced my first Russian invasion. I followed that up by volunteering with refugees and youth, and after some vacation time climbing minarets and mountains, I returned to New York City, where today I work on social justice with college students, produce short films, and write.
This entry was posted in interpreting literature, literature, poetry, quotes, teachers, time and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to On Dead Men and Living Arguments, or Time Changes Everything

  1. ralfast says:

    I had some good ones and some bad ones, but I stuck to the books myself. Hermione and I have something in common, we read our school books before classes started! Especially my English Lit ones.

  2. lucidlunatic says:

    It is possible to allow English class discussions to go too far, however, when the students are dead wrong. I recall one instance when one of my high school English teachers allowed much of the class to absurdly misinterpret a passage from The Great Gatsby. After listening to various other students jumping on the band wagon I took it upon myself to defend what I knew to be the correct interpretation. The teacher agreed with me, as it happens (of course- I was right!) but she only encouraged the debate during class. I spoke to her after class to make sure I wasn’t off my rocker, but she had considered it more important to allow people to develop their own opinions than to correct an invalid interpretation that, I suspect, was put forward by someone who hadn’t actually done the reading the night before.

    So yes, everyone is entitled to their own argument, but the teacher should also make sure to instruct and guide the discussion along the right paths.

    • sputnitsa says:

      I’ll agree that the teacher ought direct discussion, for sure. Although I’d be wary of only one single understanding being the sole correct one.

      The sad thing in this particular class, though, was that it wasn’t like the students were hopping with ideas nor even all that interested in discussing. It was more like a student made a guess, she told us The Right Interpretation, and then the one or two kids interested in discussing were squelched. She couldn’t bear more than one possible outcome to any particular question–as her actions throughout term seemed to indicate, I should say.

      She was a great disappointment of a teacher. Unlike all my others, I should say. 🙂

  3. J says:

    I think we all have had teachers who are great, and teachers who should never have become teachers. In my opinion, good teachers allow kids to think and instill confidence in their students. I still remember my favorite teachers to this day.

    • sputnitsa says:

      🙂 It’s a shame we don’t pay teachers well.

      I remember once when I worked in a library, meeting an MA student who was a few weeks from becoming certified to teach. My skin CRAWLED at the thought of this person in our classrooms.

      Then again, like you said, there are some awesome ones we’ll always remember, and who have great impact in our lives. 🙂

      If only there was a way to easily reach former teachers to say “thank you.” Although, of course, the effort would be worth expending, too.

      • J says:

        I went back to the high school in my 20s and saw some of my old teachers. I also wrote one teacher a letter and sent him a book (he was my teacher AND my basketball coach).

        I wonder if teachers realize how much they truly affect their students…I can’t remember a whole lot about childhood, but I remember my teachers 🙂

        And I agree about the $.

  4. sputnitsa says:

    Aw! That’s so sweet. I should look up some of mine…

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