Sunday, October 08, 2006

My English Teachers

Just do the steps that you've been shown
By everyone you've ever known

Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours another's steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you'll do alone. . . .
Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive and the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive but you'll never know.
--Jackson Browne, "For a Dancer"

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.
--Henry B. Adams, The Education of Henry Adams

For five years in the late eighties and early nineties I was a member of the faculty of the Department of Theatre and Communication Arts at Memphis State University, where I taught film studies. For the first time in my career (and I have taught at the college level since 1971), I was not an English teacher, and I experienced a new, discernible but hard to identify freedom in the classroom. After a time in my new role, I realized its cause: for the previous seventeen years I had been forced to carry the weight, as all English teachers struggle to do, of the stereotypes placed upon me by my students, beginning with the first day of class each semester. Sometimes it would take the whole term for me to persuade them to see me as I was rather than through the distorting lenses created by their previous experiences with my kind. Often I never succeeded.

Media stereotypes of English teachers don't help matters either. With the possible exception of dentists, no profession has been more defamed in film and on television. The vast majority of cinematic or televisual English teachers are likely to be either a) pedants, b) eccentrics (please recall that Blanche DuBois was an English teacher), or c) womanizing bastards (perhaps the purest form of the latter can be found in Looking for Mr. Goodbar [1977]).

But English teachers once had English teachers, too. What we ourselves became owes much to our personal experience with those odd people whose ranks we joined. Now that I am, again, no longer an English teacher (in the Fall of 2006 I became Chair in Film and Television at Brunel University in London), let me tell you (in several upcoming posts) about mine.

1 comment:

rafiya said...