Only two more shopping days until PAT CONROY MONTH! begins, people – are you ready? Because I am – I’ve been reading the Pat Conroy Cookbook for the past several days and am almost finished (yes, it’s the kind of cookbook one reads cover to cover, because – Pat Conroy being Pat Conroy – for every two-page recipe in the book there are about six or seven pages of story to accompany it), and I’ve gathered my Pat Conroy novels in one place and downloaded onto my Kindle the ones I don’t have my own copies of here in Massachusetts.
But mostly, I’ve been thinking about teaching.
Jill and I happened upon our idea for PAT CONROY MONTH! when we found out that the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma is celebrating Pat Conroy Day on September 21. But only a few days after we made our announcement, I began to realize that September of 2012 will hold a special significance for me because it is the first September since 1977 that I will not spend in a school. For a long time I assumed that I would be a lifer in independent schools: first through my own education and then through the ten years after I finished grad school that I spent as a teacher and administrator in boarding high schools. And my dad was a teacher too, so my family was always attuned to the school-year calendar, taking vacations in August after summer school was over and taking it as a given that there would be lots of relaxing family time around the holidays, when independent schools take a two- or three-week break. But now – for a while and possibly forever – I am not connected to any school.
When I think of Pat Conroy, the first images that come to mind are of beaches, tides, shrimp, intense family dramas, and – yes – Barbra Streisand as Dr. Lowenstein in the film adaptation of The Prince of Tides. But the second wave of thought is all about the relationships between teachers and students. Because Pat Conroy GETS IT. He understands why this career has always been so irresistible to me – why I loved my own teachers as much as I did and why I held on so long when my teaching job was making me physically sick and why the loss of a teaching job once almost killed me. Conroy has written about teaching – mostly in The Water is Wide, an autobiographical novel about the year he spent teaching in a segregated school on an island off the South Carolina coast during the first year of teacher integration in the South Carolina schools, but also in The Prince of Tides, where protagonist Tom Wingo has just left a teaching job because of a scandal of some kind. Mostly, though, he writes about his own teachers – largely in My Reading Life, but I am also finding some teacher stories in the cookbook. Like me, Conroy can bring any conversation back around to the wonderful teachers who shaped his childhood and adolescence.
I remember a line from his novel The Lords of Discipline: “The bad teachers never reach me; the great ones never leave me.” I was fifteen when I read this statement for the first time, and it resonated with me immediately. I had already had many great teachers, and I already knew that in this sense I was more fortunate than most. But of course I had no way to know how the legacy of these teachers would affect me over the long term. I hoped and probably assumed it would be true, but really I had no idea how my formal education would affect me after it ended.
And now here I am, at thirty-six, blogging with a high school friend about (among other things) the AP English course we took in high school. And just this morning, another mutual friend asked us on Facebook if Fr. Murphy knows that we’re writing this blog – and the answer to that is (as far as we know) no. Of course we know that sooner or later he will probably find out about it, and of course Jill and I have had many discussions about how public we want to be about this blog and about how honest we want to be about our reactions to the books as we experienced them in 1993-4 and how we experience them today. Every time we’re faced with this kind of judgment call, I ask myself how I would feel if – eighteen years in the future – I found out that some of my former students were engaged in this kind of project, and I have never imagined any other response except “They’re still thinking about the books they read in my class? With all the other things that can distract people when they’re thirty-six, they’re still thinking about high school English?” That – followed by lots and lot of tears.
When I put together reading lists for the classes I taught, I was concerned with one thing: the future. I did want the students to “like” some of the books that they studied, but I’m also aware that the idea of “liking” a book is an extremely superficial reaction. I also wanted to students to experience some positive challenges – books they thought they would never be able to read or understand and were positively surprised to find that they could (for high school students, Shakespeare’s plays are the classic examples of positive challenges) and maybe even the occasional negative challenge – books that remain difficult and frustrating throughout the entire time the students study them, but through which they gain analytical skills and patience. But the real goal in my mind was never how the students would do on next week’s test or on the AP Exam at the end of the year – what I most wanted to do when I was teaching was to give them a bank of characters and archetypes and examples of authors wrestling with the human experience that they could turn to for help and advice when they wrestled with said human experience themselves.
I have made statements on this blog that may sound disrespectful toward Fr. Murphy. I have even used the S word (i.e. “stupid”) NOT about Fr. Murphy himself (God forbid!) but toward his decision to organize our AP course around female protagonists in the first semester and male protagonists in the second semester. This method seems superficial to me – unless the purpose of the course was to learn more about the psychology of gender or some such thing, and it was not. I always organize courses either chronologically (if the purpose is to look at literature in the context of how society has changed over time) or by genre (if the purpose is to study the different genres) or by theme (so we can compare the ways that different authors from different times and places have dealt with the same larger ideas). The gender of the protagonist seems to me to provide very little meaningful fodder for discussion (unless, as I said, the focus of the course is gender studies), and I would never organize a course in that way. However, I think I know why Fr. Murphy did. Jill and I were in high school during the first half of the ‘90’s – we started high school in 1990 and graduated in ’94. Throughout the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, educators were constantly reminded of the fact that they were secretly prejudiced against girls. Studies of the era showed that teachers unconsciously made eye contact with boys more than with girls, responded more substantively to boys’ comments and essays, and called on boys to speak in class more often than girls. English teachers in particular were lambasted for choosing more books by male authors than by female authors and more books about male protagonists than about female protagonists.
And then I remembered the most obvious reason of all and felt really STUPID (note that I’m using the same word I applied to Fr. Murphy’s method of organizing his syllabus) for taking so long to think of it. Our high school had just gone co-ed a year before we enrolled. SI had been an all-male school from 1855 (making it ancient for a California school) until 1989. It went co-ed grade by grade, enrolling girls first in the freshman class only – so we were only the second senior class to include girls. Now, I’ve said before that one of the first qualities I think of when I think of Fr. Murphy is his sensitivity – and now that I’ve sat down to think about it and put the pieces together, I’m imagining that he devoted the fall semester to female protagonists so he would have a concrete way to justify to any critics (and probably first and foremost to himself) that his course was not biased toward boys.
I’m embarrassed that it took me so long to think of this. I can be a little dense sometimes.
Curriculum planning, like anything else, is driven by trends. By the time I was teaching high school in 2002, the pendulum had swung the other way. I’ve always been taught to assume that the entire discipline of English contains an innate bias toward girls – that adolescent girls are more patient than adolescent boys and more capable of the solitary and sometimes slow process of reading and that because girls’ verbal skills tend to be more advanced than boys’, they tend to be more skilled and confident at writing essays. I’ve always spent more time worrying about packing English courses with books that appeal to boys, figuring that the girls will be patient enough to read along and intuitive enough to empathize with the male protagonists.
So in other words, Fr. Murphy was driven by the prejudices of his generation, and I am driven by the prejudices of mine.
I don’t like to think of Fr. Murphy as being driven by trends. I still see him as the Platonic ideal of a teacher – and as such I think he should have been above such things. It’s OK for me to stumble around letting the latest studies published by the National Council of Teachers of English tell me which books to teach, but Fr. Murphy should have been above all that. But of course that is a prejudice too – Fr. Murphy was just a person like the rest of us, and I have a feeling that he was a person who was terrified of making mistakes. So he planned a syllabus that – while imperfect – made his intention to be unbiased perfectly clear. And when I think about it that way, it makes perfect sense.
A few years ago, a student I had taught in an 11th grade honors English class wrote me a note before he graduated, telling me that he planned to be an English major in college and thanking me for being one of several teachers who inspired him toward that path. Then he admitted to me that he didn’t always finish the books we read in class – but he promised to finish them someday. Believe it or not, until today I’ve actually never made the connection in my mind between that note and this blog – but of course, Jill and I are essentially doing just that. And when and if Fr. Murphy ever does find this blog, here’s the note that I want him to read:
Dear Fr. Murphy,
You have never left us. Even before this blog, we thought of you all the time. When we were freshmen in college – when email was a novelty – we used to email each other back and forth with little sayings from your class. Sometimes in the last eighteen years, we’ve gone over a year without talking to each other, yet in spite of all the other catching up we had to do, the conversation always managed to return to our memories of your class. We measured all of our college English professors against your standard and usually found them lacking. When we were seventeen, we read books quickly and superficially. We had other things to think about and do that we thought were more important (they weren’t). Thank you for being patient with us and liking us anyway. We are older now and have finally learned how to slow down and pay attention.
We’re sorry it’s taken us so long.
Bethany and Jill