In Praise of My Eighth Grade English Teacher

A shallow life, a dull life, was waiting to lull me under its spell. I am forever grateful my teacher did not allow it.

As I recall, she was a proud, self-affirming, and aristocratic woman. Perhaps not the typical image of an eighth grade English teacher and certainly not the kind of teacher my mother wanted for her son. Her son, she knew, was sensitive and had a mind prone to wander. The famously —or perhaps infamously —stern and unsentimental English teacher simply would not do and we came to dread the prospect of a year in her classroom.

Within the borders of our little town, perched on the New England coast and serenely facing the gentle waters of Long Island Sound, she had earned a reputation as a bold and challenging woman. The consensus among the privileged inhabitants of this charming and uneventful place seemed to be that she was moralistic, fond of discipline, not particularly sympathetic, and a person of exacting standards ill-suited for the YOLO atmosphere of 1990s America. My mother called the school and tried for a different teacher, but without success.

I am grateful that she failed.

The contemporary Stoic philosopher William Irvine notes that enlightened hedonism has become our age’s default philosophy of life. This philosophy, seldom examined, teaches us that the way we should live, as many of us learn from the time we are very young, is to pursue pleasure and avoid discomfort—provided we can do so without violating the rights of others. To succeed in this is to have a good life. And for many perhaps it is, but for some the mind wanders. It wonders, too.

At first it wanders aimlessly, half-asleep, guided more by precious feelings than by well disciplined habits of thought. It wanders, but never where the terrain is rough—not up into the mountains, down into the valleys, or deep into the shadowy woods. It is diffident and incurious, wandering without endeavoring, always turning away and turning back, uncertain of its capacity to persevere, and so it gives up and dozes off amidst the empty comforts of quick surrender. Perhaps a habit of vain and aimless wandering is suited to children, but in adults it makes the soul slovenly. In order to have any value, wandering needs to be ennobled by a question, for it is in pursuit of an answer that mere wandering becomes transformed into a quest.

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And speaking of questions, just what exactly were we all going to do with our lives? Barely teenagers, we were suddenly startled awake by the booming, authoritative voice of a woman who pounded her fists on the desk when she spoke. She had been at this long enough to know that many of us would grow up to have careers in law, business, medicine, or some other lucrative line of work. Of course, there was nothing wrong with such careers and they could be laudable if pursued in the right way and for the right reasons. But she knew what moved many people in places like this. The aim of living, as was popularly supposed, is to live comfortably and pleasantly, not to excel at being a human being per se. She saw, however, that better lives were achievable, especially for people who enjoyed our advantages. We could, if properly guided, opt out of enlightened hedonism and become more than mere receptacles for pleasant experiences. We could, if we were sufficiently daring, pursue self-mastery. She laid before us the choice to cultivate our minds and become more than the sum of our impulses and appetites. To this end we read allegories that probed the nature of good and evil. Up until that point, my reading largely consisted of Goosebumps books and Garfield comics, and even that meager fare eventually took a backseat to computer games. I had been half-asleep.

I doubt that anyone would have said that she was a nice person, but niceness is not kindness and perhaps there is nothing more unkind than letting a person, especially a child, wander down the fruitless path of moral mediocrity and banal self-absorption. Our teacher was intimidatingly high-minded. She had, for example, rescued a supply of old grammar books from the mists of time. They were antiques—beat up, dog-eared, and dusty. As I recall, we began almost every class by cracking them open and running through the exercises at the end of each chapter. The desks were arranged in a horseshoe pattern and she would move around the classroom clockwise, drilling us on split infinitives, dependent clauses, and the other minutiae of English grammar. There was no time to think. She expected us to know the answer and respond without delay. If a student took more than a few seconds, the chance to answer was forfeited and counted as wrong. Perhaps this seems harsh, but our performance on the task rapidly improved and we learned it.

Or at least most of us learned it. Sitting next to me every day was another boy for whom the answers always seemed elusive. He struggled and so I tried to help. As our teacher rapidly and methodically moved around the classroom like the second hand of a clock, I would whisper my best explanations of the answers and their whys to him. He improved and our teacher noticed. She was impressed by my kindness and let me know it. Even after the school year had concluded and she saw me around town, which was usually in the bookstore, she would say, “I’ll always remember how patiently you helped that other boy.” This was significant, because as I entered an angry adolescence, it meant something to me to be reminded of my own capacity for compassion.

While she had a unique talent for praising noble actions, our teacher also had a unique talent for reproach. This isn’t something usually cited as useful or meaningful, but it meant a lot to me. Once, I forgot a book in my locker, and since such lapses were forbidden, it was imperative that I go get the book before that part of the class began. I asked to be excused to go to the bathroom and my request was granted. Rather than go to the bathroom, however, I went to my locker to retrieve the book. I tucked it into the back of my pants and under my sweater and I stealthily snuck it into the classroom, unnoticed by my teacher. But my classmate, the same classmate I had been helping, saw what I did and as soon as class ended reported me to the teacher with tremendous glee. It seemed to please him that I, too, could make a mistake. I was betrayed. She looked at me—though it felt like she was looking through me—and said in a disappointed tone, “Is this true? Did you go to your locker to get your book?” It was indeed true and I confessed, to which her only reply was, “Why did you lie to me?” That, I think, was my first true experience of guilt. I felt profoundly bad, not because I was going to be punished (I never was), but because I had done something wrong. And that was how she taught. She not only provided us with fictional models of good and bad lives after which to pattern our own, but as strange a thing as it may seem to laud in a teacher, she was also highly skilled at praise and blame.

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By that spring I was motivated to move beyond reading the literary equivalent of junk food, and opened what was arguably my first adult book, Buddhism Plain and Simple. Although my reading habits would evolve over time, I have been in the process of reading at least one serious book continuously since that moment. These events marked the beginning of my intellectual and moral journey. Eventually I would go to graduate school for philosophy, as well as live abroad in my relentless quest for answers. Admittedly, I have not always made consistent progress in my pursuit of knowledge or in integrating that knowledge into a coherent way of life. I have often stumbled or simply languished in error. I have often defeated myself, undone by my own intense emotions that I seem unable to master. And I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t been profoundly miserable during long parts of this journey. Nor would it be true to say that I was never tempted to give up and give in to the false happiness of a drowsy soul. But if I were asked to relive my life all over again, even with all of its innumerable pains and moments of despair, I would say yes.

I do not now see the world as my eighth grade English teacher did, but that’s almost beside the point. She instilled in me a profound doubt that an easy life of material possessions and pleasant sensations is the best life. She engendered a suspicion that a good life for human beings should be more than that. I feel profound and enduring gratitude for the person who guided me away from a life not worth living.