As the school year winds to a close and my second year as an American Literature teacher comes to an end, I begin to think back on semesters past. I analyze my mistakes, calculate changes for next year, and begin to think of my students in a nostalgic sense. Just the other day I scanned my first period A class and began to think, soon these kids won’t be my students anymore — a surer sign of impending vacation than the smell of freshly cut grass.
Because I am human, I have my favorites among my students, and I also have my least. I do my best to keep such subjectivity under wraps, but at times there’s little I can do to conceal my affection for some and my disdain for others. A teacher friend of mine who beat me to the classroom by four years once said, “Remember the people you hated when you were a high school student? The cliques? The douchebags? The little princesses? Yeah, you’re still gonna hate them as a teacher.”
She was right.
Being in school day in and day out sometimes causes me to drift back to my high school years. A student will say something and I’ll think, God, I remember feeling that. Or there will be some drama over high school relationships (I had the distinct honor of watching one of my female students get dumped on the phone in my classroom earlier this year) and I’ll be inclined to drop some cynicism. I’m forced to bite my tongue.
But again, I am human.
Not only do I ponder my high school years, but I also think of college: those long hours of lecture, tedious labs and general disgust with my classmates — it all comes back to me.
There’s nothing worse than a long-winded professor who does little to make class interesting, but instead sits behind the desk rambling monotonously at great length about the historical and contemporary context of literature, different lenses of literary criticism and author intent. Hours and hours of sitting and listening. Your butt starts to itch terribly on the hard, plastic seat. Eons of emptiness. It’s like wandering through a desert without end.
Dr. Murray Brown at Georgia State University was not one of these professors. If anything, Dr. Brown was the exact opposite. Some people viewed his classes as a joke — an easy A, or a guaranteed little-work class to offset an otherwise challenging semester. I didn’t see it that way. To me, Dr. Brown’s teaching style, along with that of a few other professors I’ve encountered (the knowledge of Dr. Paul Voss, the intensity, rigor and high expectations of Dr. Carol Marsh-Locket), is exactly what I strive to emulate.
I had the pleasure of taking three classes from Dr. Brown: an European Romanticism course (I think), a Senior Seminar on the art of Satire, and his Gothic Literature class. The Gothic class was my favorite. In it, we dove into the European Gothic Tradition. We swam within its purpose, touched the bottom of its Christian and ethical origin, and played Marco Polo with the text (sorry, I ran out of swimming jargon to continue the metaphor). We read numerous novels, The Monk and The Castles of Otranto being staples of the curriculum. My final paper was an essay deconstructing Otranto and Kubrick’s The Shining (which I will gladly send to anyone interested) as the epicenter of the Gothic tradition.
Dr. Murray Brown was a professor and an entertainer. He told the same stories in all three classes, and at each one of them I laughed even though I knew the punchline before he got to it. I took some of his stories and adapted them to fit within my own classroom, borrowing the point of the story but substituting my own reality for his — the car crash on I-85 to emphasize sublimity, his story kids, sorry — but I swapped it with my own accident.
Dr. Brown’s class had tremendous value, but only as much as the students were willing to put into it. If you wanted to learn, actually learn something that broadened your insights on literature, life, and history, all you had to do was read the texts assigned, take part in class discussions, gather your thoughts and ideas and put them into your essays. Simply having the drive to become more learned was the prize. You left more wise in the ways of both the world and literature, and also got that coveted A.
Or, you sat in class, bullshitted the work, and still walked out with an A. The end result was either your personal and intellectual growth, or a simple letter grade — it was up to you.
The reason I can justify mentioning Dr. Brown in my Contrarian column comes down to how he explained the paranormal to me during an after class discussion, which I subsequently have used when teaching American Gothic Romanticism to my own students: the paranormal is a world that science has yet to touch. It is the world that surrounds us and works in such a complex fashion that it is next to impossible to see. If you take a goldfish and bring it to an amusement park and hold it directly in front of a roller coaster, there is no way possible for that goldfish to understand the roller coaster because it is not designed to see it. You can hold the bag against the steel railings, you can show every inch of the ride, you can even take the goldfish on the ride. It will feel the impact, the inertia of the twists and turns, but it will never make the connection between the roller coaster and the sensation it feels, because it is not designed to do so.
We are the goldfish and the paranormal is the roller coaster.
I left this after class discussion with a spinning head, the clarity of the comment made a huge impact on me. It was one of those off-the-cuff moments with a teacher or professor that finds a special place in your psyche and becomes a part of you; one of those magical moments where you are forever changed though he or she probably had little idea of the transformation.
There is a distinct difference between learning and grades, and a lot more to life than a letter on a report card proving that you can play the role of the student really well. An A does little to reflect the passion you feel for the topic, the same way an F fails at proving you don’t. The world functions at higher intellectual level than a grading system; it is far vaster than a grade can contain or reflect. It’s what you take with you and what you do with it that proves your wisdom, not the letter itself. A teacher is successful when his or her students feel the roller coaster, not when they merely dole out A’s.
As a teacher I can only hope that some of my kids get to take that ride.