Back in school for the spring, the holidays behind us, my classmates and I met with unwelcome news: Miss Carpenter, our teacher, had made an assessment over the break and decided that, to this point, she hadn’t prepared us well enough to move forward.
“Forward” — seventh grade, to the large new high school the county had just opened, Wakefield High, four miles from the Pentagon, which was to be our academic home for the next half-dozen years.
It was 1954, and we, as sixth graders, were facing the fateful passage from being elementary children to junior-high students, from being kids to teens. And, to Miss Carpenter’s mind, we were not going to be ready. Hence, changes must follow. She was going to test us daily in all the key areas: in math, in reading and writing, in the history we were studying. (There was very little science in our curriculum then.) And more homework to be done. Homework. Every night.
That this news was unwelcome understates the matter. The shock, for me personally, was twofold: a bright enough boy, or so I believed, I felt quite comfortable in my management of things. Hadn’t I been contending with the little homework we had had easily enough? That the load would increase, and the stress along with it, gave me a fresh, desolate sense of being oppressed and deprived of my boyhood freedom. What eluded me was that I had grown lazy — and preferred being lazy.
But the deeper shock was to my self-esteem. “Not ready to move forward.” Not competent, in other words: ill-equipped to meet standards; unready for the challenges that would henceforth be the norm. That revelation was the more troubling one. It was hard not to feel that I had been dealt some injury, that a level of disapproval — of dislike, even? — had been revealed in Miss Carpenter’s feelings toward me. And hadn’t I been among the “good” ones in the class — not disruptive like some (two classmates of ours were very troubled boys, boys who had somewhat held the rest of us back), and quick in class discussions to volunteer answers? I had thought that she liked me.
I was being, that is, humbled as never before. Chastened. And I was beginning to grasp a principle I’d formulate only later — namely, that every time we undertake an act of “revision,” every time we reconsider a previous judgment, we’re performing a strategic act of voluntary “self-demotion” in the name of hoped-for eventual betterment. This is “self-demotion” in the sense that we realize that our former complacency — with ourselves, with the progress we have made on a project — has been undeserved. More simply put, we see that there’s room for improvement we hadn’t seen before and that humility is the key to authentic flexibility. In reassessing us, Miss Carpenter had similarly reassessed herself.
Something else was afoot, though, those jolting early days of January ’54, as the new regime got under way, as Miss Carpenter daily administered the tests (assessment instruments, really) to help us understand how far behind we were, how much was to be done, how much new material lay ahead for us to master: we trusted her judgment. Traumatic as it felt, we accepted her verdict that we, as a class, were unready to move forward, to meet the oncoming challenges of being in junior high. How could she not know? After all, she was our teacher: experienced in these things as we could not possibly be, acting in our best interests (which became increasingly clear as we improved as students), tempering justice with her mercy as we struggled to make progress. She was as ready to praise as she was to find fault.
Now, as offspring of the War — we’d been born, we sixth-graders, during the conflict (we were not Baby Boomers!) — we were all of us conditioned to be respectful of authority. Too much so, perhaps, some of us would think later. Hierarchy prevailed! But in the mid-1950s, an acceptance of authority — respect for it as well — seemed a natural part of the order, as did the assumption that competency went together with authority, and that these qualities, in turn, bore the freight of responsibility: accountability to those over whom one had authority. Further, we believed that authority was not freely granted but came from a stature well earned — earned through the training required by any discipline. And hence, even further, we believed that such measure of self-esteem as could flow from “achievement” had the approval and validation of one’s peers in a field (we didn’t “think” in such language, but this is what we embraced).
I can’t say I liked, in any usual sense of that word, laboring under Miss Carpenter’s stern and steady gaze, but I was, finally, ready (though less so in math, which was my fault alone), as indeed most of the class was, to move on to junior high at the end of the year. I could feel myself growing as I worked to meet my teacher’s challenges, challenges I very much wanted and hoped to meet, whatever struggle they might cost me. And years afterward, I would visit Miss Carpenter in retirement — a most dignified person, a Kentucky colonel’s daughter, heavyset, never married, eventually made the principal of the school I had attended; her vocation, evermore, was that of educating children. And I would pay her homage.
That I myself, years later, as a university professor, would choose to fault a class as she had faulted ours for lack of adequate performance — only recently have I seen how parallel the two experiences were. I was teaching, as it happened, an introductory graduate class on critical thinking and writing, a foundation course in the Master’s degree in English that I had helped to create and would direct for many decades. On receiving from my students the first paper I’d assigned them, an interpretive response to a difficult poem of Robert Frost’s, I’d found myself dismayed. The papers, I thought — the whole dozen of them — were facile, lazy, shallow. Some were even glib. The relaxed tone of a few suggested (maybe unintentionally) that the assignment, the very first one, a fairly short paper, wasn’t to be taken all that seriously — a bit of work to be “done” just to satisfy the professor. What particularly dismayed me, beyond the fact that some of the papers were so carelessly written, was my deducing that certain students hadn’t really read the poem — or, at best, had done so casually, deciding what its drift was in rendering a hasty and merely formulaic judgment. They wrote as if, after a read-through, most likely a quick perusal, they had easily determined, “Oh, yeah, that’s what it means!” and had put it down on paper.
These were not students who were ready to advance. It’s curious how strong the alarm bells going off were. This is symptomatic! I said to myself. More than an isolated incidence. We had reached, as a country, in our educational history — we were in the late ’90s — a juncture characterized, as I saw ever more clearly, by an increasingly prevalent indifference to discipline, to the struggles necessary to meet a serious challenge, to effort beyond the usual. Don’t make students feel bad about themselves! had become, more and more, a mantra in education, from lower grades to the highest. Teachers were seen as providers of a service to consumers. What was ebbing away, dying, was the notion of authority, of legitimate authority grounded in expertise, of the respect due to it. (Not “deference.” Respect.) And, worst of all, we were losing any general understanding of just how indispensable it is to human growth for one to be humbled as one works to gain competency in a difficult craft. Again, the “strategic self-demotion” that was requisite to any meaningful act of self-correction, together with the indispensable benefit of guidance from someone who has genuine mastery in a field.
I responded to my students by writing a letter, an open letter to the class, in which I voiced forthrightly my having found the first of their efforts insufficient and saying plainly enough that work of that quality just wouldn’t do. Not here! Not at this level — if they wished to move on. The bulk of the letter (some pages in length) I devoted to explaining why this was so, and how they might appreciate, and begin to abide by, the standards that critical writing sought to live up to — standards not of my devising as an individual instructor and in no way capricious; standards widely subscribed to (controversies notwithstanding, and the field had plenty of them) by the community of critics, of which we were part and under whose aegis we labored.
It oughtn’t have surprised me, and generally it didn’t, that the students receiving the letter didn’t look on it with favor. Some were open in their indignation, wondering, Who was I to fault them so frankly?, and one student at least would remain hostile to me — and resistant to my teaching — for the balance of the term. But some, I’m glad to say, were ready to eat humble pie and were candid enough to admit that they had blown the assignment off. And many of them were prepared, indeed, eager, to redo the assignment. I suggested that, instead, the deed already done, they might better profit by being guided by my letter (which had articulated a host of critical principles for their use) in undertaking the remaining assignments in the course.
Soon enough word got out about the letter I had written, and it wasn’t very long before the Dean of Graduate Studies asked to see a copy of it. He caught up with me after he’d had a chance to read it. “Boy, that’s an intimidating letter,” he said grimly. “I don’t think that I could have found the nerve to write anything like that. Not to our students!”
“ … So, then,” I asked him, “what would you have had me do?”
He had no response, really.
Not to our students. If not ours, I wondered … in pursuit of their Masters yet, and likely, many of them, to be teachers themselves … well, then, to whose?
How much we were losing!
That exchange with the dean did not at all punctuate the close of my career. Of that, there remained almost a quarter-century — roughly half of the total. So much to do still! I’d develop a number of innovative courses, courses that took risks; I’d create, or help to create, three of our graduate programs; I’d continue to oversee, working, always, to be inclusive, our Visiting Writers program. And for a succession of summers, I would usher a group of students into the Umbrian heartland for a summer writers’ residency.
I would feel immense gratitude for having had the privilege of being a professor, of teaching and advising so many students, of shepherding so many through their graduate programs, of having had an impact on a heartening number who found in my teaching something of lasting value to them.
But the losses were mounting. For certain students, more and more, having someone “in authority” determining anything about them amounted to subjugation, an unfair and unworthy instance of oppression that required them to “submit.” The distinction between submitting and acceding was fast eroding. And being invited to endure substantial academic pressure or being informed that their performance didn’t yet measure up became demeaning to many students — a ready source of indignation, and, soon enough, defiance. Trust — basic trust in the “academic compact” — was threatening to wither.
I had come to be known at our modest university as a “good” professor, all right. More, indeed, than just “good” for a number of students. To them I owe a deep debt. But too hard — the recurrent judgment toward the end of it all. Too hard. Too tough! Though students readily granted that I was eager to work with them, brought my passion and a lively sense of humor into the classroom, and clearly loved, and knew, my subject.
But too hard. Too demanding.
After 50 years in the classroom, acceding, as it was time to, to an altered set of values, and grateful, as ever, for the chance to have served, I accepted the fact that it was time for me to go.
I could no longer effect what Miss Carpenter had accomplished.
Richard Wertime, Professor Emeritus of English at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania, is an award-winning teacher and writer, author of Citadel on the Mountain: A Memoir of Father and Son (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), recipient of the 2001 James A. Michener Memorial Prize. His fiction, literary criticism, and cultural commentary have appeared in such journals as the Yale Review, the Hudson Review, the Georgia Review, Southwest Review, Ploughshares, and PMLA. His most recent publication consists of the short story “Soccer,” which appeared in the recent April issue of the Woven Tale Press, Vol IX No. 3.