Anyone who knows me well knows that this entry has always been inevitable, and the last few weeks have provided me with the perfect opportunity to write it at long last. Over Grove City’s intersession I did a two week internship at my dear old alma mater, and what follows is a “reflective essay” I turned in yesterday to the people at Grove City. Beware—it’s long. I have lots of thoughts…
I started at Caldwell in the fall of 1997, almost sixteen years ago. My connection with the school is older than that of all of the administration, and most of the faculty. I remember when each building was built, when each modular disappeared. I have cried in almost every room on the second story of the Smith Building, and I know the name of every Caldwell graduate before me. My name is written in sharpie in an undisclosed location on school property. I think it says something idiotic next to it like, “Class of 2010—Lifer.” So it’s nearly impossible to distance myself from these boys with the t-shirts under their polos and the girls whose shirts won’t stay tucked into their skorts, who straighten their hair and clip in a big navy bow. But perhaps distance would be more of a hindrance than a help just now.
Caldwell’s strength has always been closeness. They call themselves (or should I say we call ourselves?) a community school. Teachers and administration love their students, and with sometimes-necessary encouragement from the faculty, the students love each other. This has not changed, and I pray it never will. I stepped in for Mrs. Upper when she had a family crisis, was reminded en masse by my math teachers of the silly things I used to write on my test when I couldn’t do the work, and, best of all, I got to be with Mrs. Liebmann when she got the call saying that, for the fifth year in a row, her scans are clear. She does not have cancer.
Because of these people, Caldwell has never suffered for kind hands and free hugs, but what has always been a struggle, I think, is excellence. Particularly at the end of my high school career, I got quite a fair number of A’s that I knew, even at the time, I had not earned, and in the past two weeks, I witnessed, on occasion, some pretty dismal student work. Soft grades overflow from the teachers’ kind hearts and pens, and what’s missing is a desire not simply for the happiness of the student, but a desire that they be good, and generous, and wise. They will find it hard to become men and women who live in God’s grace if they feel entitled to kindness.
The key to excellence in Caldwell’s case may simply be revitalizing their classical foundation. The Sayers essay is an Appendix in the school handbook, and still required reading, I think, for new families. The tenants of a classical school have come and gone in the time I have known and loved this school, but they are raising their head again. A little manifesto entitled “Standards of Excellence” is posted in nearly every room in the Rhetoric school, including, oddly enough, the staff bathrooms. When I was in high school, Latin wasn’t offered above eighth grade, but now it’s on the curriculum straight through graduation, for those who want it, a move of which Dorothy Sayers would approve. Also, in the years, since I’ve left they’ve played around with a humanities program in the Dialectic and Rhetoric school, which currently means that the history, literature, Bible, rhetoric, and writing teachers all collaborate to a great degree. Aside from the almighty senior thesis, which has been around for a while, Rhetoric students now have a regular oral component to their humanities exams. I am also pleased to announce, that, though I never noticed it much in my time there as a student, the Trivium is quite alive and fairly well.
I didn’t spend a huge amount of time in the grammar school, but when I did, it was oddly refreshing. I read a Jan Brett book called The Hat to three groups of kindergarteners and three groups of first graders. They were enthralled by the pictures and several insisted on counting the empty clothespins on the clothesline with each new page, and reporting back. They are indeed Sayers’ little Poll-parrots. I only wish I’d known their names so that when I needed one of them to turn around and stop talking I could’ve said something more than “Honey. Honey. HONEY.” I also got to read with some fourth graders, and for reasons unknown, the teacher, who is a good friend, gave me all boys. They listened well, were bright, and every single one of them was eager to read aloud. I wonder when it is that boys stop publically caring about school, stop raising their hands when a question is asked.
I only got to be in the dialectic school for one afternoon. Elspeth Glasgow, Grove City grad extraordinaire, had me in to help lead a discussion her seventh graders were having on whether or not Abraham was lying when he said Sarah was his sister. The half of the class I had always had at least three or four hands wiggling in the air at once. None of them seemed the least shy about contradicting each other. We talked about the difference between lies and deceit, and they gave some fairly impressive examples of falsehoods and evasive language. Occasionally, I could see their native “pertness” giving way to real intelligence and thoughtfulness.
I spent most of my two weeks in the Rhetoric school, and the majority of that time in Mrs. Liebmann’s room, which got me very familiar with the freshmen and the juniors. One momentous day I took score for six back-to-back exam review games and learned everyone’s names pretty thoroughly, I hope that in some small way this helped me blend in with the community Mr. Greer is working so hard to further in the Rhetoric school. The first day of exams the administration brought in a popcorn machine for a snack between periods. And for the second day, Mr. Greer bought fifteen boxes of brownie mix and some eggs and asked the teachers to take them home and make a couple batches. You know what? They did. Happily. But then again, these are the people who plan on chaperoning a “Rhetoric Retreat” this Thursday and Friday, who are going to share cabins with these students, watch them do the polar bear plunge, and oversee the making of bubble gum sculptures. God help and bless them.
This is supposed to be what Sayers calls the poetic stage, but so many of them are not there yet, or have certainly not arrived there with a vision or purpose. I suppose that’s the teacher’s job to give. Mrs Liebmann’s method of encouragement in this area is to require commonplace books. They have to copy twenty or thirty quotes which they like each week, and write a short response to one of them. I got to grade a couple batches of these, and I found them more interesting and touching than I expected. One boy whom I had watch cut up in class began, “This is a quote from my sister’s calendar” and proceeded to write in earnest about the ways his own classmates spread sunshine and cheer. Multiple girls poured out their worries about friends and image and fear. The exercise is clearly a good place to begin in self-expression. The students have to ask themselves, “If I am to be this sort of person, whose shoulders ought I stand on? Which words will I hold most dear? I think this is true and good and beautiful, but why?”
One of Caldwell’s most beloved programs in past several years is the choral program, presided over by Mrs. Twigg. I sat in on both concert choir and Caldwell Singers, the auditioned group, and sang along. I had forgotten what hard work it is. I have no idea how I had enough energy to do that three times a week in high school. Halfway through concert choir I stopped singing and just watched. I looked around at the kids and wondered if they knew it made them a better person. I wondered if they knew what they were saying when they called a song beautiful. I wondered how often this evident patience and hard work extended beyond their harmony. But I supposed that even if, like me, they had to wait a few years for all the benefits of art to begin to manifest themselves, the risers and the filing cabinets of sheet music would not be in vain.
This last stage of the trivium is the hardest, I am sure. You are suddenly accountable for more than your work or even what you say, but for yourself. All of a sudden you must be a self who is worth being and expressing. Other people require it of you and, more frighteningly, you find you require it of yourself. It is easier for many of them to simply not try, or look as if they don’t care. A group of ninth graders I had told me that yes, of course they had read for the discussion that day, but it had been before Christmas so they didn’t remember any of it. I told them that was just as good as not reading at all. They were missing the point on purpose. They are old enough to know that living by the letter of the law alone will not suffice. One of the reasons I found the lower schools so refreshing, is that I did not really have to try to get the kids’ attention. They were told to listen and engage, and so they did. The rhetoric kids, however, make you work for it, and I need plenty of practice and patience. In The Seven Laws of Teaching Gregory lists ways of “kindling and maintaining” attention, which I am far from internalizing.
But they are missing so very much when they don’t heed both their teachers and their text. I observed a class of juniors who were having a very solemn discussion on “To His Coy Mistress.” I was just sitting in the corner, and didn’t think I ought to monopolize the conversation, but as I listened them discuss the speaker’s worldview, and the logical syllogisms of his argument, which are all well and good, I wanted to say, “You guys. This is funny. Isn’t this funny? Just a little bit? He’s got an in-joke with the audience, and he’s all pleased with himself and thinks she’s going to fall for it, and we’re laughing right back because we know she probably won’t.” I didn’t say anything, though. Perhaps I should have. Perhaps they need more help to see these things than I think.
My actual experiences at the front of the classroom were sometimes challenging. Of all of Gregory’s seven laws I struggle the most with the language of teaching. I am at college right now, where I am always trying to sound smarter and more elevated, but in front of high school kids it is really only imperative that they understand, not that I seem brilliant. I got along fairly well most of the time with the three periods of ninth graders I had. They are friendly and patient, though I was momentarily stumped for correct words when a girl innocently asked me to explain what a brothel was. Leading the senior’s Great Divorce discussions was harder. Mr. Greer was sitting right there and those kids were freshmen when I was a senior. Some of them are friends. It was hard to be Socratic and bright, to ask the right questions even when there are so many kind faces eager to give a helpful answer.
The most encouraging results I saw were, predictably, not results inspired by my teaching. I watched Marie Conner give an excellent explanation of the Hays Code and Mrs. Liebmann give a lecture I know she loves on Romanesque and Gothic architecture. I could see that they grasped not only the facts, but the awe, the unbelievable scope. The real proof of learning was evident in the oral exams I sat through. I sat in on one section each of ninth, tenth, and eleventh grades, most of whom were proficient in varying degrees. About a week beforehand the kids are given the list of twenty-some questions, and on the day of reckoning they have to pick one out of a hat, take notes and marshal their thoughts for five minutes, then sit attentively through the rest of their classmates’ 3-5 minutes speeches. Waiting their turn was the hardest, I think. They are still kids. It all serves not only as an assessment, a benchmark, but it fulfills Gregory’s law of “review and application.” Of course, not everything stated with certainty from the front of the classroom that day was quite right. Apparently, though I was not there for it, one student claimed the Africans brought over jazz in the early nineteenth century, and as for what I did witness, particularly with one of my favorite plays, I often had to resist the urge to run up and help and correct and explain. One student, whose family both Caldwell and I know of old, got up, did a very good job, and in the midst of his talk made a crack about “a classically-trained scholar like myself.” I know he was mostly joking, lightening the exam-day mood, but I wonder what else that meant to him. I’m sure he could explain the trivium in his sleep, because he’s been through it himself, but what else does he know? I’m curious. Maybe I should have asked.
Perhaps my most useful activity in the past few weeks, though it was small in retrospect, was the grading I did. I graded a set of non-AP essays on Huck Finn. I could tell who had tried and who could have tried harder. I graded a set of poetry annotation assignments, a whole slew of vocab quizzes, and bits and pieces of different humanities exams. It is clear that I am hard, perhaps too hard. Mrs. K got calls from parents complaining about the strict grading of the poetry assignments, but if she doesn’t mind then neither do I. I am young and new, and I heard that we are all like this. We grow out of it. But I hope I never grow out of a commitment to excellence, to giving feedback, encouragement, and challenges. I hope never to take the easy way out. I hope to treat language with care, and teach my students that it is imperative they do the same.
I wanted to work with senior thesis while I was there and didn’t get a chance, because the kids haven’t really started on it. Thesis was my favorite part of senior year. Huge paper, oral defense, study what you love: glory, glory, glory. I did, however, get to sit in on a writing curriculum meeting. Michael Hicks, one of those early Caldwell grads whose name I’ve known forever, was hired over the summer to teach writing, but right before school started he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. So while he underwent treatments all semester, Debbie Holcombe, the mother of one of the ninth graders, stepped in. The meeting was a passing of the torch now that he is recovering. They both clearly cared a great deal that these students wrote well, that they knew lots of words and used them to say things worth saying. They desired a deep connection between meaning and language. They discussed, what is, in fact, one of Sayers’ main points, the desperate need for logical progression in student thinking. These kids took logic back in the day, but they have not yet learnt to apply it.
Many Caldwell students have, in fact, been living on what Sayers calls “educational capital” for a long time. They are nice kids with nice parents, but unless we and they work, and work hard, for something more, niceness will be worse than worthless. It will be the lie which keeps them from Grace. I want desperately for these kids to be excellent, good, reverent. But how do we get from here to there? I know very little of what is, I’m sure, the ponderous answer to that question, but I know that we must teach them, and in turn ourselves, that we are not made to be our own gods. We can plan, and take action, but we must take great care not to live upon what Lewis calls the “fixed land.” We must simply get up into each morning as it is given us, teach, learn, and worship without ceasing. If only my school does that faithfully, academic excellence and every other good thing will follow as it ought.