From the Frontier of Teaching


While the intellectual in me has always been a bit suspicious or patronizing of persons who read their daily devotional or Bible, I must confess that I have turned to literature in my life in what must be a very similar capacity.

I have found comfort, reaffirmation, suffering, joy–I have been a participant and spectator in what either Testament likely has brought those who reflect on biblical teachings, only my sustenance has come off shelves of books from just about anything I could put my hands on, including Raymond Chandler, Lawrence Durrell, Graham Greene, Thomas Pynchon, all the stuff an English major consumes, even more so outside of assigned readings.

Various times during my life different genres have appealed to me, and as the boundaries have blurred over the years, I carry with me in my head my own little selection of imprints as they relate to various parts of my life, some parts boundaries erased, others likely compartmentalized.

Yes, I do contradict myself, but who doesn’t?  It should also be said that to consider poetry a form of religion is nothing new.  When I was younger I found that a great idea, more in the form of protest than anything else, to embrace, home from college on rare visits, interested in how Mom and Dad and other relatives could be provoked by my going on about Robert Graves, the White Goddess, Osiris being chopped up in pieces in the Nile river, and so on.

But as a middle-aged fart now, one enduring mentor walks with me, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, at least as far as the teaching part of my life is concerned, and that is a very large part indeed.

I am thinking for example of Heaney’s poem, “From the Frontier of Writing,” which is about many things, but to me signifies the enormous danger we are in as teachers.  No, I am not talking about being shot or having guns aimed us, though that has become part of dangers associated with teaching, whereas before many probably would have thought to use the terms “danger” and “teaching” together outright ludicrous.

In the poem the persona is stopped at a roadblock and his I.D. is checked, all the while military keep their arms ready, if by chance the person they have stopped is a terrorist.  That of course is the English view of an Irishman traveling who happens to be Catholic and have an ethnic name, “Seamus.”

For anyone who knew Seamus Heaney, his public persona or varying degrees thereof, to suspect him of being a terrorist is, well, yes, ludicrous.

But what the poem expresses so well is the feeling of the person being stopped and checked.  His feeling of being spent from the experience, an innocent man doing good things, and experiencing a discomfort at having to show his credentials.  More thick-skinned, or less sensitive people, probably would not understand this sensation, but for those of us who do, can we not see a teacher minding his or her own business, teaching, yet constantly open to be road-checked in various ways by those administering the government of education.

There is also in the poem “the sergeant with his on-off mike repeating / data about you, waiting for the squawk / of clearance . . . .”  It is not difficult to think of translations for this line, such as student learning outcomes being imposed upon teachers who are doing an excellent job and keeping track of the teacher’s “output” as it relates to students passing or being retained.  Teachers being checked for getting with the program, be it the acceptance of online education expansion at the expense of the brick-and-mortar classroom or embracing standardized testing, at the college-level also.  Making sure the under-prepared student be saved and retained because he is exactly only that, the under-prepared student, faceless to the “government” that keeps score on spreadsheets as if students were cans of peas with expiration dates.

And what is it that “Seamus” might be doing wrong?  That depends, yes, so much depends on changing educational initiatives and requirements (with apologies to William Carlos Williams just now).  That is frightening, particularly as changes are often dictated by models of business into which faculty have very little input and are often being viewed as trouble-making workers on the assembly line.

What is the best thing for “Seamus” to do?  Keep on teaching “Seamus,” just keep on teaching, but continue to dip your nose and pen into poetry, in my case it is my nose and the poetry of Seamus Heaney, for a field manual of not only survival but eventual gains, a push in the opposite direction of those “cradled guns that hold you under cover.”

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