The 50-year-old Visionaide class record book is spread open among baskets of corn chips and beer bottles. Its ruled pages, bound with a mottled cover, document the grades of 46 high school students in 1959, the year I found my way in school. I am leaning over it alongside Jack McFarland, the man who taught me senior English. He and his wife, Joan, are here for his college reunion, and we are settled in for a meal at a Mexican restaurant on the west side of town. Mr. McFarland (it still feels a little odd to call him Jack) never throws anything away. His den is floor-to-ceiling with teetering stacks of papers and books—his wife has shown me pictures. Before coming to Los Angeles for the reunion, he unearthed the grade book from my senior year. He runs his finger down the left column: Ramirez, Ray, Rose. M. Rose.
Half a century ago, Mr. McFarland, frustrated with his studies, interrupted his graduate work at Columbia to teach in our small Catholic high school. He was in his mid-20s and had a presence unlike anything I or my classmates had experienced before. Jiggling a piece of chalk, he paced back and forth in his rumpled and coffee-stained clothes, turning to the board, again and again, to write key words and significant phrases about the span of Western intellectual history, from Homer to Brave New World. He brought an elite mid-century education to our unassuming high school.
Now, reading the column of names, Mr. McFarland says, “Oh, I remember him; hmmm, don’t remember him,” and I prod his memory about the students I can recall. Joan moves to our side of the table, next to me. He turns the pages, which show our grades on quizzes covering The Iliad, The Aeneid, and Dante, and essays on Homer, on Virgil—a paper every two or three weeks, returned to us covered with his detailed comments. Except for a few superachievers, we were in the deep end of the pool. Most of the guys who attended our school—Catholic schools were then segregated by gender—came from blue-collar families. Some of us, myself included, were poor, but the parents of others had worked their way into a comfortable version of 1950s middle-class life; a few came from families headed by professionals. Regardless, the grades in Mr. McFarland’s book suggest that the demands on even the brainiest students had never been so great. The first term of the first semester produced Cs and Ds galore.
I’d had several good teachers in elementary school, but on the whole my education before Mr. McFarland was unexceptional. My father was chronically ill during most of my school years, and, as an only child, I stayed close to home to care for him. My mother supported us by waiting tables. Retreating from the sickness and hardship around me, I lived in my head and felt unengaged by schoolwork. I could read well, which saved me, but learned nothing of mathematics, went through the motions in social studies, couldn’t figure out grammar, and developed into the kind of average, nondescript, semi-out-of-it student I would later teach and write about.
Such kids, particularly from families who aren’t knowledgeable about school and aren’t forceful within it, fall through the cracks when they hit high school. My high school story is a too-typical one, not the drama of a kid in big trouble, but not the account of a kid going anywhere either. I drifted through the curriculum, flunked algebra, got stuck in low-level courses (the coach who taught civics, honest to God, could not read aloud from the textbook), was absorbed with my father’s death, oh my poor father’s slow death—and then, boom, senior year and I’m sitting in the front row of Mr. McFarland’s English class (commanded up there because I was acting the fool in the back of the room), trying to wrap my tongue around proper names in The Iliad.
Mr. McFarland was utterly serious, and he certainly didn’t try to entertain us. Looking back, I’m surprised there wasn’t a mutiny over the weight of the work. The soon-to-be-men in his classroom included most of the football team’s front line, three of the school’s most feared street fighters, a sampling of guys from tough neighborhoods to the south and east, and an assortment of nerdy goof-offs like me. Mr. McFarland, though, seemed undaunted, pulling us through the centuries: classical Greece, Rome, Augustine and Aquinas, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Hard as the work was and pissed off as some students were by it, we could see that he was going all out, putting stupendous effort into reading our papers, pulling us aside after class, marching down to the administration office if he thought one of us was wronged.
Now, sitting alongside me at dinner—older, heavier, with a big, bushy beard—Mr. McFarland is in high spirits. He shakes his head in reaction to the amount of reading and the number of papers he assigned. He laughs and says to Joan, “I didn’t know I couldn’t do this . . . so I just did it!” He starts talking about the books, full of enthusiasm, about how much he liked Conrad then, or Crime and Punishment, or, recalling his extracurricular reading in New York, Invisible Man. He asks me if I’ve read the newer stuff he’s enjoying, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son or Alice Munro. There’s the same force of intellect, the same zap of ideas that I remember, though now he’s downright jovial. The pleasure of recollection, perhaps. Or the sense of meaningful work, a life well lived in the classroom.
My eye catches the column labeled Heart of Darkness. We had to write a story in Conrad’s style, a college-level assignment that Mr. McFarland had appropriated from somewhere in his own education. He pushes himself back from the table and says, “I thought, ‘Why wait till grad school to do this stuff?’” I still remember that assignment. It was one of the papers that flipped a switch in me, that helped me redefine who I was.
After dinner and repeated goodbyes—in front of the restaurant, in the parking lot, and as they drive away—I go home, pull down the Dell paperback edition of Three Tales of Joseph Conrad that I read 50 years earlier. (Like Mr. McFarland, I don’t throw much away either.) “The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails,” I read, and the brittle, brown pages come off at the seam as I turn them. I am struck by what a new kind of book this must have been for me: the thickly descriptive language, the dilatory indirection of the narrator, Marlow. I suspect that I read through long stretches of it—especially at the beginning when Marlow sets up the tale—without registering much at all.
Having to write something in Conrad’s style led to another first for me. Up to that point, if memory serves me, most reading of literature in school emphasized plot, character, and maybe a show-stopping symbol or two. But now I had to get in close and examine the author’s choice of words. Otherwise how could I imitate this guy’s style? This was the stuff of literary analysis, and that was Mr. McFarland’s intention, I’m sure. Once Marlow begins his journey up the Congo, I start finding some places where I’m marking up the pages. I’d never taken a pen to text like this, but here I go. The following comes as Marlow seeks refuge from the sun in what turns out to be a “grave of death” populated by terribly sick African laborers.
At last I got under the trees. My purpose was to stroll into the shade for a moment; but no sooner within than it seemed to me I had stepped into a gloomy circle of some Inferno. The rapids were near, and an uninterrupted, uniform, headlong, rushing noise filled the mournful stillness of the grove, where not a breath stirred, not a leaf moved, with a mysterious sound—as though the tearing pace of the launched earth had suddenly become audible.
Of course I don’t remember now what I was thinking, but I linger with the passage and picture myself bent over the book at the kitchen table, zeroing in on sound and motion. The analysis is pretty crude. I’m underlining a lot and not differentiating very well. But I imagine myself happy, pleased with what I was doing, using my pen to consider each word, assuming that Conrad was up to something and that I was going to figure it out. Without quite understanding what was going on, I was being led to read in a new way.
Mr. McFarland’s choice of Heart of Darkness was astute. For though the book was difficult, and little in my background had prepared me for it, the novel’s gloomy, ominous language is as thick as fog in a horror movie, discernible and available for imitation by a kid with a rudimentary set of tools. Much to my surprise—and there it was, right in the grade book—I got an A-/B+. I suppose I had been mediocre for too long and took to the challenge to think hard. And I suppose I had lived internally for too long and enjoyed this more public engagement with ideas and with school. And then there was Mr. McFarland’s unorthodox but compelling presence and the sense that in his way he was looking out for us.
Until Mr. McFarland’s class, I’d given little thought to what to do after high school. He counseled me toward his alma mater, a local Catholic university, and I was admitted as a probationary student. He kept teaching another year or two, mentored me through my bumpy freshman year, and then returned to graduate school. From there he moved to Sacramento to teach in a community college, where he met and married Joan. We lost touch. I would go on to teach in elementary school, community college and job training programs, a program for returning Vietnam veterans, and an Educational Opportunity Program’s tutorial center, working for the most part with children and adults who for one reason or another were not prepared for school.
One day I was sitting in my office grading papers, and the phone rang. I knew the voice, felt it, before I could name it, deliberate, coming from back in the throat, elongating the vowels. It was Mr. McFarland. He had read something I wrote and looked me up. Now we see each other once or twice a year when he and Joan visit Los Angeles.
What happened to me in senior English, as long ago as it was, relates to a central issue in education today: how to provide a quality education for all students, particularly those who are, in today’s parlance, underprepared or at risk or in some way disconnected from school. I’ve taught many people since those days and have studied a lot of classrooms—some like Mr. McFarland’s, some quite different—and I’m drawn both analytically and emotionally to those moments when you see signs of the mind stirring, of people beginning to get a sense of what they can do.
Not long ago I was observing a high school program in the construction trades, a curriculum where faculty from across the subject areas focus on the integration of traditional academic work with trade skills. A fair number of the students had not done well in school, and the program attempted to serve them better, to provide a new beginning.
In the electronics classroom, the teacher had built the wooden frame of a small house and placed an electrical panel in it so that students could test their skills. On the day of my visit, a couple of students were installing lights and running wires to the panel while a group of younger students who were entering the program watched. The older two nodded that they were ready, and the instructor walked over to the central power source and ceremoniously flipped a switch. The whole house lit up! Ceiling lights, wall lights, floods. “Wow,” exclaimed one of the younger students under his breath. “Man,” he said, “that’s crazy!”
I know, son. It is crazy. See where it leads you. Then hold it close and run with it.