On Great Teachers (and others) Part 2

The hardest part of having great teachers and having accepted their brilliance and sneakiness, is that I expect this same brilliance and sneakiness from everyone. It’s not a conscious expectation, but who am I to deny someone something to which we all aspire.

Oh, that.

Actually, I realize that I have no idea to what other people aspire. And at heart, I suspect that most people don’t know this about themselves either. I would make a list of the ways people get confused about their aspirations, but it would be sanctimonious (even more sanctimonious than the rest of this).

I realize that I spend too much time trying to figure out what today’s teacher’s moment of sneaky brilliance is. Because not everyone is a Socrates. Not everyone is going to share their passionate brilliance about flying buttresses like Michael Cothren. Nonetheless, when working with “authorities”–with people from whom I expect to learn something, I do look for the hidden treasure (and the hidden map).

What is the hidden treasure? My best teachers always had a dual treasure in mind. One was always the subject at hand: Joyce, Woolf, Geology, Baroque Art. The other was always my (or any other student’s) ability to tease out a unique and successful approach to the subject at hand. As a teacher, my favorite moments are witnessing my students’ dawning awareness of their nascent brilliance–watching the lights go on.

What I have learned over time, and it has been a hard lesson, is that many teachers are only interested in the first treasure. Learn the material and advance. And when I write “teachers,” I mean, “people.” Because I think that everyone is a potential teacher.

In my less generous moments, I think that people want to teach everyone else about themselves. In more generous moments I accept that people are always teaching about the world. The lessons may be unintentional and uncontrollable, but there they are, waiting for the student.

I am more troubled by teachers who never want the treasure to be uncovered, or worse. They hand you a map, and when you follow it, you discover not a treasure, not even a new map, but a penalty: an electric eel, an exploding tomato, a severed thumb (wait, that’s my thumb!). Of course there is a lesson here as well, it is a darker lesson, and one I would rather do without. It may be a necessary lesson. Still.

I go on (I can’t go on). The sneaky brilliance (or the brilliant sneakiness) of the world daunts and delights me. There is always something to learn, and, always, another way to get to it.

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I am a writer and a teacher. I have lived in Philadelphia, Binghamton, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Norfolk, and Northern Virginia. I have sailed on the ocean and flown over the North Pole. I write fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.

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