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The Teacher Must Be A Great Fiction.

"Fiction is not fact, but fiction is fact selected and understood, fiction is fact arranged and charged with purpose." -Thomas Wolfe

If you teach at an ecumenical school, you’re a real character. You’re a fiction, and no less a fiction than Tom Sawyer or Wendy Darling. There is no other way. It is for the best.

In loco parentis is not an expression which has maintained much of its’ old meaning. Parents no longer consign their children to educators for years and years at a time, and educators do not become surrogate parents. In the classical era, perhaps to some extent in the Medieval period, as well, the in loco parentis teacher seemed nearly to adopt the child. The mother of a Dominican monk studying cannon law did not phone the abbot to complain of the late nights her son was made to endure pouring over the books. Today, teachers do not stand “in the place of parents.” They stand to the left of parents, perhaps a few feet behind. I say this not as some lachrymose idealist pining for a lost golden era of education. We can do fine with the tools we’ve been given.

Many classical Christian schools today are broadly ecumenical; twenty churches might be represented in the two hundred students in attendance. Such circumstances lead most schools to draft primary and secondary doctrine policies; a central set of doctrines (half of them Nicene, say, and half of them having to do with Scripture) must be propounded by teachers, and all other matters (most notably those pertaining to sacraments, eschatology and liturgics) may be discussed by teachers in theology and philosophy classes, although the teacher is neither to put forward one particular view as proper, nor are they to voice their own personal convictions. The theology teacher discussing sacraments sketches out arguments in favor of transubstantiation and arguments against it, as well as a Lutheran view, an Anglican view, a Zwinglian view, a Calvinist view. As is often the case, the students hear out the descriptions, but what they are most interested in is the teacher’s personal belief, and the teacher must divert students away from such questions. While such diversions are needful, they come at some expense; the more personally distant the teacher is from the students, the less capable the student is of imitating the teacher, and that same imitation sits close to the heart of the classical model.

In his solitude, the teacher possesses certain unpopular prejudices about politics, watches R-rated movies, cannot find fault with the drunkenness of Noah, cannot stand Ron Paul, enjoys Back in Black, cracks a smile at the blue joke every now and again, laughs at what passes for sophistication in home décor among the petite bourgeoisie, finds the school crest quite gauche, only buys organic, will not sleep on a thirteenth floor, actually thinks Rothko something of a genius… these are not exactly my own eccentricities, but I’m sure a few of them belong to some polite lecturer out there who is moving the sophomores through Thomas à Kempis’ De Imitatione Christi for a Medieval history class, all the while earnestly hoping his students will see the inherent value of submitting their minds and bodies to God as the text commends them to do.

The teacher-student relationship is an adult-child relationship, fraught with all the same difficult negotiations of truth and admission which pass between parents and their kids. Some significant portion of the teacher’s personality (their tastes, not to mention their dogmas) must be submerged and hidden in order to properly teach; the personality of the teacher always threatens to run roughshod over the classroom (or to simply become a massive distraction to the students), and yet the imitation of the teacher is essential to cultivating a love of learning and a desire for virtue. I would say this is a paradox, although the word is become too overused of late. It is more of a lovable contradiction.

Whenever we assume a particular role in society (shopper, pedestrian, man being cited by the police for speeding), particular aspects of our personalities become submerged; society is a sprawling, shifting, greased matrix of responsibilities, limitations, manners, vocabularies, volumes, allowances, demands, reveries, reflections. We curate our collection of social masks meticulously— the student mask, the supplicant mask, the grocery shopper mask. Wearing each of these masks, we submit to a different set of cultural expectations based on the gravity of the work we are performing, the dignity of the place in which it is done, the audience who will likely bear witness. Teacher is yet another mask; to say the teacher must submerge this or that prejudice or taste is to say that teacher is a role, performed like any other, beholden to strictures and limitations of power, while open to others. If, in the middle of class, I inform the students I am too parched to continue a lecture without water and petition one in their midst to remove himself to the kitchen for a full glass and then return it to me promptly, I do not think I have overstepped my bounds. Were I to call the same student later in the evening and make the same request, I should be rightly laughed at. I have tried to use a certain mask out of turn, out of place.

The teacher is a fiction, then, a kind of character, a kind of self, edited and truncated, hidden and secretive by necessity— beautiful in its time, as per Koheleth. I suppose the teacher sits beside other civil servants on the great shelf of civitas; there is the policeman, the soldier, the hotelier, the teacher, the fireman, the postman. Many of these civil servants have obtained institutional reputations; the policemen is brave, the soldier is patriotic, the postman is determined. What of the teacher, though? Beyond this bravery or patriotism or determination, the particular personality of this or that civil servant stands to augment and clarify the nature of enforcing justice, defending the nation, delivering news from afar. A policeman is both a policeman archetypically and personally; he is both an officer of the law and Officer Joseph Warren, the latter interpreting the former.

For the classical teacher, working in an ecumenical environment, the mask crafted for the classroom is of profound significance. The students will imitate the teacher, both the mask and the words spoken through the mask. The personality/mask of the teacher must naturally lean into the student’s work of cultivating self-respect, but must also remain open for imitation. All this done in an ecumenial community- where some are Catholic, some are Lutheran, some are Anglican, some are Baptist. If even the mildly objectionable aspects of the teacher’s private life must be quarantined off school property, and if the life-creating dogmas and private cultic observances of his liturgical, sacral, and pious life must frequently be sequestered from the classroom, as well, what life is there with which the teacher can construct their mask?

Well, to be frank, only a man of muted humor, tedious sentiment, and trammeled imagination would need ask such a question. I would hope even the most intransigent Catholic understands the father of the prodigal son is no Catholic, and that the unyielding Baptist knows the good Samaritan was no Baptist either.

The person who performs the role of teacher ought to play the role in such a way as to sharpen and clarify a desire to draw near to God, but do so in a manner which mirrors the vertigo-inducing, claustrophobic, invigorating, terrifying, five-second elevator to the 400th floor feeling of catching a real, Patmos-like glimpse of the Truth which shoots through a theorem, a maxim, an image, a song, a man, a body. Were there any teacher in Scripture who lays forward the most captivating model for teaching the adolescent, certainly it is Solomon— the exhausting trickster of Proverbs, the moody critic of the world in Ecclesiastes, the hopeful and impatiently patient lover of the Song. A good teacher should be no less offensive than Solomon, although certainly not more so. A good teacher should not stand for those students who are “too righteous,” and the good teacher should “not pay attention to every word [students] say, or you may hear your [students] cursing you- for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed [the administration, the parents, your colleagues and the students themselves.]”

The good teacher knows it is better to have a B- with peace than an A+ with striving, and the good teacher will become a loud greeting in the morning to parents and ticky-tacky gradehounds who disagree. The good teacher is unpredictable; a fiery moralist who grants obvious homilies to the young men against lust, who yet speaks rather candidly about the typically tragic outcomes of honest romance. Like Solomon, the good teacher does not edit his own moral failings from his repertoire of stories, but neither does he indulge the ears of the weak with lurid stories. The good teacher presents himself as a great failure and a great success, complaining of his meaningless works and boasting of all the things he has discovered “by my own wisdom.” The good teacher is an uneven, preaching, pulpit-pounding enigma who comes in a still soft wind, but also in a whirlwind, tottering and dancing around a classroom, provoking the students with questions answerable and unanswerable. The good teacher is structured, but his structure is hidden; in vain have commentators sought the rigid skeleton beneath the impenetrable scaly flesh of Ecclesiastes. The students gain a sense they sit in a small, barely secure skiff atop a very deep lake, but how many fathoms separate their boat from the silt on the bottom— this is uncertain. The good teacher pretends to be mad, on occasion, and prances, and while prancing recalls with ease the words of Paul, Christ, Luther, Tolstoy, and Joyce, creating a world of words, a door of words, a window of words, a crawlspace of words, an escape hatch of words, a Death Star of words, an attic of words, a river of words… this is what changes a boy or a girl. This is the image of learning which is appropriately wild, aptly bizarre. This is the image which lingers on the darkside of the palpebral silver screen after the object has been lost from view.

Is this “the real you”? Silence, and let us hope the silence is the answer. I have told my students more times than I can count, “You don’t see ‘the real me,’ and that’s assuming such a thing even exists.”

Of the meaningful teacher, Mencken once wrote:

Go back, now, to the old days. Penmanship was then taught, not mechanically and ineffectively, by unsound and shifting formulæ, but by passionate penmen with curly patent-leather hair and far-away eyes— in brief, by the unforgettable professors of our youth, with their flourishes, their heavy down-strokes and their lovely birds-with-Ietters-in-their-bills. You remember them, of course. Asses all! Preposterous popinjays and numskulls! Pathetic idiots! But they loved penmanship, they believed in the glory and beauty of penmanship, they were fanatics, devotees, almost martyrs of penmanship— and so they got some touch of that passion into their pupils. Not enough, perhaps, to make more flourishers and bird-blazoners, but enough to make sound penmen. Look at your old writing book; observe the excellent legibility, the clear strokes of your “Time is money.” Then look at your child’s.

Such idiots, despite the rise of “scientific” pedagogy, have not died out in the world. I believe that our schools are full of them, both in pantaloons and in skirts. There are fanatics who love and venerate spelling as a tom-cat loves and venerates catnip. There are grammatomaniacs; schoolmarms who would rather parse than eat; specialists in an objective case that doesn’t exist in English; strange beings, otherwise sane and even intelligent and comely, who suffer under a split infinitive as you or I would suffer under gastroenteritis.

If this is not you yet, I have only remarked it is a character. You can read for the part, yet, for the play runs anew each year.

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