Twenty-five years of trying to teach against the trends: against the easy way , the quick result, the confusion of discipline with punishment and of popularity with effectiveness . . . .
It was against this background that the remarks of a former student at the Webb School caught me off guard.
"I want to shake your hand and thank you," he said earnestly. His smile was warm and his grasp was firm -- but his eyes were fixed with wonder on his memories:
"You know, in your class it was pure torture."
I recall having had him in class only one semester, right after he had entered our school at the age of 14, suffering from educational neglect:
Minimal powers of concentration, little reading skill, virtually no writing skills. His academic heritage was polite grading, large classes, casual teacher-learner relationships, and social promotion.
Furthermore, he seemed to suffer from what experts call "dyslexia." How difficult it had been for him to pass the test in minimal spelling competence! He needed all the encouragement he could get. He had the challenge:
"Notice the insides of words. Learn the rules and memorize the chief exceptions. MISpronounce the spelling of words 'correctly." Write and write words, and undrline the letters you miss. It's really up to you -- but you can do it!"
I admired him for his abundant cheerfulness, his appetite to achieve, and told his parents that this would see him through. After four years, he did receive his high school diploma -- the hard way.
Now a college sophomore, he was about to transfer into the University of California system. Neither his grades in school nor his College Board scores had given him that chance before. It was slow results -- superior academic work in the college he was attending -- that had finally won him the acceptance.
For a time he had been actively interested in politics, but now he was broadening his educational sights without neglecting social sciences either.
"I am going to major in the humanities," he said with enthusiasm, and his eyes glowed.
But what did "pure torture" of that early class have to do with his present joy?
The question wasn't exactly new. My own mind feels the cutting edge of other memories, such as these:
A mother had said of her son, "As a sophomore, he came into your class very much afraid." He did stay a year -- and earned an A -- but other students have tried it one day and transferred out.
A colleague, also a former student, remarked: "They are very glad to have had you as a teacher -- when they're in college."
As a teacher I could have done it all not a bit differently -- and that's not bragging. No one teacher can cultivate all the pedagogical virtues. But this student who thanked me for the "torture" was he not also telling me I had been too difficult, too uncompromisingly demanding?
There is an answer to this in other memories:
A senior, already accepted to his first-choice college, remarked: "I have been stimulated and even forced to think about many aspects of life I have avoided for years."
The insight of a former student, in reference to another teacher whom some students had described as "abrasive":
"You remember the teachers that really stretched you."
And a senior of several years ago -- a manly fellow and star athlete who had left school abruptly before graduation, his only classroom experience with me having been the struggle with a challenging text on individual freedom. He said:
"You go on teaching!"
I took his advise as a special mandate. It is also a question of conviction.
A crusty old schoolmaster I never met, whose improbable career had drawn me out of a newspaper office into the classroom, had always chased or shamed off his campus any salesman trying to peddle a textbook that made things "easy."
But he had also declared and proved, not by statistics but by the individual examples of his own students:
"The scholar is not the mechanically taught but the personally inspired."
The inspiration: more splendid than pleasure. Spiritual pleasure: joy.
How inadequate even the best words are to describe the glow and fire in a student's eyes who has mastered what he had first confronted as impossibly hard, who has achieved what he had thought he never could.
These things keep on happening, often unexpectedly.
They reflect what Albert Eisntein called "that untiring devotion which alone enables man to attain his greatest achievements."
They inspire teachers as well as students to keep on trying.