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Telling Stories about Teaching

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The Last Column

By Paula Marantz Cohen


 

My mother was a high school French teacher who began her teaching career in the late 1940s, before I was born. She continued to teach while raising me and my sister, unusual for a woman in the 1950s. Some people disapproved of this, but she knew she would have been a worse mother had she stopped teaching. Her work made her happy, and her happiness made us happy. There were other benefits, as well: a supplementary income, a profile in the community (she was the French teacher in our town), and, most of all, the stories she brought home from school that were a continual source of instruction and delight.

My mother was a kind of Scheherazade of teaching. Every evening around the dinner table, she would recount a new tale to the rapt audience of my father, my sister, and me. A typical dinner would include grapefruit, meat loaf, canned peas, and Jell-O with fruit-cocktail—a meal she would prepare after returning home from teaching five classes, two study halls, and a cafeteria duty.

The stories she told us ranged widely in style and content. She told us about the characters in her classes: how X fell off his chair at noon each day like clockwork; how Y didn’t have her homework again and had a new, imaginative excuse for why; how Z had fallen asleep in class and she had roused him by bellowing in his ear: “Monsieur, pourquoi vous êtes si fatigué aujourd’hui?”  There were stories of gossip and intrigue: feuds and affairs between teachers, outrageous pranks by students, confrontations and misunderstandings, some of these quite trivial, that nonetheless kept us on the edge of our seats. There were stories of politics: union meetings led by the soft-spoken history teacher who became a rabble-rouser when arguing for higher pay; cogent social critiques by the Latin teacher, a former Jesuit priest with an eye for the incongruous, the unjust, and the contradictory.

Most of all, she regaled us with observations about the wonders of teaching and learning: how this student had written a brilliant paper on La Fontaine and that one had given a flawless oral presentation on Le Petit Prince; how she had finally figured out a way to teach the subjunctive; how Sartre and Camus had introduced her to the wonders of existentialism. She would report jubilantly on how a former student had decided to major in French in college and how another, after graduating from college, had decided to teach. She herself remained in the classroom for 35 years and followed the lives of her best students into middle age. In some cases, she had their children as students and even, occasionally, their grandchildren.

She loved her students and was amused and also occasionally hurt by them. We heard those stories, too—of disrespect, ingratitude, and wasted gifts. She was deeply committed to affecting her students’ lives and took personally what they chose to do with them. The result of her stories was that teaching became for my sister and me a magical occupation, full of life and ideas, a powerful way of influencing others and a window on the human condition in all its aspects. Why would we have wanted to do anything else?

This column has served me like the dinner table served my mother—as a place to regale an audience about teaching: its joys, challenges, humorous aspects, pains, and profundities. It’s been a delight to write on such a regular basis—to be able to plumb what I do for nuggets of interest and to trace patterns in my profession that are worth sharing with readers. I’ve had the chance to think about how college teaching has changed over my 30 years in the classroom—what I like about those changes and what I don’t—and to consider the aspects of teaching that are fundamental and immutable.

I’ve also pondered my personal odyssey, realizing that I’ve become a more patient and forgiving teacher but also a less energetic one; more open to other points of view, but more out of step than I’d like with advancing technology. I think that my sense of humor has been a constant, if anything given more play over the years by greater confidence and perspective. But my sense of pathos is also greater. I see more clearly the obstacles that certain students face and how difficult it will be for them to succeed, given their difficult financial situations, their poor work habits, or the gaps in their previous education. I see teaching methods in a broader context. I realize that a good class need not be an endurance test, that the workload can be challenging without being burdensome.

I could go on writing about teaching forever. So long as I am in the classroom, there will always be something new to say. I have, for example, just begun teaching James Joyce’s Ulysses. I am not a Joycean and have always been intimidated by the novel. But I have chosen to teach it, in part, because I don’t know it well, and it scares me. The older I get the more I think that teaching should involve serious learning for the teacher as well as the student. And it should involve some kind of risk—the outcome should be uncertain.

Still, for all the new topics and ideas that continue to occur to me, the weekly column can, like any prescribed form, become stale. I have loved writing for this site, but at times, and increasingly, it has seemed a chore. It will be liberating to not have to do it. I hope to continue to explore the joys and tribulations of teaching in other forms and forums, but without the requirement of a deadline hanging over my head.

I end by dedicating this stretch of my storytelling to my late mother. I learned how to do it from her—and her love of teaching informs my own.

 

Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. Her new novel, Suzanne Davis Gets a Life, will be published this spring.


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