Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference

Mark Edmundson
New York: Random House, 2002
276 pp., $23.95 hc

Henry Gonshak
Montana Tech-UM

The teachers who most influence us aren't always the profs we meet in college, but the instructors we encounter during our formative journey from kindergarten through high school.

In Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference, Mark Edmundson describes how his high school philosophy teacher, Franklin Lears, transformed Edmundson in one semester from a teenage thug into the sort of man who could grow up to be an English professor at the University of Virginia. In 1969, a school counselor convinced Edmundson to enroll in Lears's class; he was a senior, born and bred in the blue-collar town of Medford, Massachusetts (near Cambridge, though a world apart from Harvard's Ivy League culture).

At the time, Edmundson's great passion in life was playing high school football, which he excelled at. He made up for poor eyesight and mediocre coordination by being more insanely violent than anyone else on the team. Off the field, Edmundson passed the time guzzling beer with his pals, shooting pool, brawling with other tough guys, and generally "f***ing around." A total slacker at school, he'd read just one book from cover to cover: Instant Replay: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer, by the Packers' star offensive guard. To the extent that Edmundson thought at all about his future after graduation, he assumed he'd work in a factory like his dad, or else get drafted and sent to Vietnam--a war that, like most of his neighbors in conservative Medford, Edmundson staunchly supported. Yet, by the end of Lears's course, Edmundson was skipping other classes not to "f*** around," but to devour stacks of classic but unassigned books at the Medford Public Library. After his senior year, he wound up going to Bennington College, and then on to Yale for grad school.

How did Frank Lears manage to transform Mark Edmundson? Not by the means readers may assume. As Edmundson notes, Lears didn't even remotely conform to the Anglo-American myth of the "beloved teacher"--Robin Williams's character, say, in Dead Poets' Society. This type, Edmundson observes, "adores--and is adored by--his students" (11). In contrast, Lears wasn't the least bit charismatic, wearing frayed suits several sizes too big for his skinny frame, and invariably twitching as he spoke in a soft, rather effeminate voice.

Moreover, Lears showed no interest in befriending students outside of class, nor did he drop any but the most oblique hints about his own personal life. Instead, arranging the chairs in the room in a circle (itself an act of considerable daring in an institution as regimented as Medford High), Lears spent the semester patiently, unassumingly employing the Socratic method of teaching. Like an Athenian philosopher, Lears, rather than propounding any absolute truths of his own, adopted, instead, a stance of perpetual skepticism, programmatically critiquing everyone else's claims to knowledge.

Not surprisingly, the students in the class, Edmundson included, didn't instantly embrace Lears's approach. Instead, for weeks on end, the only student willing to respond to Lears's relentless questions was the school's token hippie, unless you count the contributions of the dyspeptic student, who, without having done the reading, dismissed every point Lears raised as "total bullshit."

As for the rest of the class, some students openly mimicked Lears's effete speaking style to his face, while Edmundson's pal, "Dubby," in what may represent the quintessence of student apathy, spent each period methodically filling in with his pen every letter "o" which appeared in the class texts. Edmundson's own first impression was that "this class was going to be fabulous. We could do anything we wanted. Good times were about to roll" (43).

But Edmundson and his classmates had underestimated Frank Lears. Gradually, Edmundson came to see that beneath Lears's milquetoast manner lay considerable reserves of stamina and self-confidence. In the face of the class's indifference and outright hostility, Lears doggedly continued his Socratic questioning. When Edmundson finally offered some meager contribution to the discussion, he was astonished by the intensity with which Lears listened to him. To be listened to so attentively was a gratifying experience, but also a frightening one. "The fact that [Lears] seemed ready to credit our inane reactions...started out by making us feel...more comfortable and self-assured." "But the listening intensity also...threw the issue back on us. Is this really what we believe?...If it's not, do we want this person, on whom nothing...seems to be lost, to see that we're trying to deceive ourselves and him both?" (120).

Indeed, Lears not only agreed with Emerson's famous dictum that "your goodness must have an edge to it," but believed this aphorism applied directly to teaching--another way Lears differed from our cultural archetype of the warm-hearted "beloved teacher." In the prologue, Edmundson states, "One of my motives for writing this book is to remind readers that great teachers...do not always come in this all-benevolent mode.... [A great teacher] can be a spiritual antagonist and goad as much as an ally" (11-12).

Again displaying inner fortitude, Lears didn't fear rocking the boat at rule-bound Medford High. Eventually, he dumped the course's required text--Will Durant's History of Philosophy, substituting a far more idiosyncratic reading list which included Freud's Group Psychology, Camus' The Stranger, Hesse's Siddhartha, and Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

It was Kesey's novel, which Edmundson grudgingly opened, that blew him away. "I had no idea such books existed," he recollects. "I thought all the volumes on the library shelf were written by [Medford High] teachers or their surrogates...put there to enforce good manners and proper deportment, or simply bore us to death. But here was someone who was clearly on my side" (190).

Gradually, Edmundson came to see that he and his fellow high school rebels had it exactly wrong--that listening to teachers (or at least the good ones like Lears), rather than ignoring them, was the best way students could truly challenge authority. By skipping his homework and remaining disaffected, he realized, "I was doing just what Medford High wanted and expected of me: I should stay ignorant, the better to become a good factory hand, a stand-up guy on the city crew.... [But] you could shift your destiny by acquiring knowledge" (260).

Lears also brought in some memorable guest speakers. This being the riotous '60s, he invited to class several members of the radical left-wing group, Students For a Democratic Society. Not satisfied with merely opposing the war, the SDS-ers backed the North Vietnamese and considered America a "criminal" nation. Their most cherished values under attack, the students finally began participating. Later, an angry group of black students burst into class on the anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. Turning a situation which could have grown ugly into an educational opportunity, Lears invited the blacks to participate in a discussion about the slain leader. By the semester's end, Lears was playing rock 'n roll on the school's ancient turn-table, pushing the students to analyze what till then had functioned merely as a soundtrack to their lives, to perceive that "rock, or at least some of it, unfolded a vision...a mythology" (232).

It's all a heady brew for young Edmundson, but the author acknowledges that adopting the life of the mind means, of necessity, turning one's back on much that has provided meaning and security in the past. "What were you left with once you stopped taking everything on faith?" he asks. "What you got was freedom.... You reclaimed your own mind. But you cut yourselves off from all the forms--churches and schools and governments--that made it their business to dispense the truth and, with it, some measured comfort. You became, in short, like Franklin Lears...and like Socrates, that eternal questioner and annoyance: an orphan...in the storm" (150).

For Edmundson, the most painful consequence of becoming an "eternal questioner and annoyance" was that his new identity estranged him from his blue-collar dad. The two fought, with increasing vehemence, over Watergate and Vietnam and other political conflicts of the day, but the real, if unspoken, battle sprung from Edmundson's refusal to continue accepting on faith his father's rigid beliefs. The break seemed inevitable, but today, with Edmundson's dad long dead, and the author himself a middle-aged father, he's clearly grieved by the rift. "Plato leaves his family and goes off to make Socrates his father; then Aristotle leaves his to become Plato's progeny," he reflects. "But how sad the process is for the father left at home" (271).

I do have a few complaints with Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference (starting with its dull-as-dishwater title). The memoir is cast in the "confessional" mode, where there's a temptation to paint oneself at the start as the blackest of sinners, in order to heighten the drama when one finally "sees the light". Frankly, I suspect Edmundson wasn't quite the incipient Mafioso he claims to have been before Lears entered his life. For instance, as a junior Edmundson enrolled in a presumably demanding Advanced Latin course (though he stresses that he was the worst student in the class). And, as a senior, Edmundson scored well on his college entrance exams, though his GPA remained dismal. I'd guess that rather than being a full-blown hoodlum, Edmundson was a diamond in the rough, a bright but troubled kid ripe for a teacher like Lears to turn him around.

My second complaint concerns the book's conclusion. In the last few pages, Edmundson mentions briefly that after just one year of teaching Lears left Medford High, enrolled in law school, and, so far as Edmundson knows, never taught again. Why would a teacher of Lears's obvious talent and apparent dedication quit after only one year? Since Edmundson never says, the reader is left to speculate. Perhaps Lears was worn down by the apathy of his students and the numbing bureaucratization of Medford High. Had the author explored this possibility, he might have been led to consider a sad possibility--that often the best K-12 teachers are driven away, while the burn-outs and time-servers hang on like grim death until their pensions kick in.

Those problems aside, this book is eminently worth reading, especially for teachers, since it provides educators with the salutary reminder that we are lucky (despite the headaches of our job) to be members of a profession where there's truly a chance to "make a difference" in the lives of young people.

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