Category Archives: Henry Adams

The Golden Years

Teacher Effects Eternity - ThumbnailThe fourth in a series of five essays about my 32nd year of teaching…

We teachers affect eternity. We’re told so, and it’s true. Though I’ve always taught in small schools, you can multiply the average number of students per year by the years I’ve been in classrooms and reach, conservatively, 2,000 or so. That doesn’t seem large compared to eternal crowds gathered by public school teachers. Still, it’s a lot, and the memory of individuals in that crowd might suggest numbers matter. Classes and faces stick with me. Had I stayed at one school, children of former students would appear to resurrect recollections of their parents.

I appreciate notes and emails from ex-students. I’m pleased they remember me at all and moved they take the trouble to tell me so. Cards and letters go into a special file to bolster my confidence on dark days. I’m grateful. I am.

That said, eternity isn’t solicitous. She smiles when she pleases, and you cannot—cannot—ask for affection. She is coy because eternity continues. She isn’t finished, and perhaps your effect will wane. Maybe it’s waning now.

So gratitude won’t fuel careers. Imagine you desire wealth and find gold dust everywhere. Sure, it’s only dust, but it accumulates quickly—in a scoop of earth, in the still pools along a stream, on the bottoms of your boots when you walk home. You’re happy to put it aside in bags that gather by the door. Then, slowly, you notice supplies dwindling. And you no longer find the dust casually. It takes energy to shovel stream beds, to pan the soil. You know the process too well. Seldom do you find that boot-bottom gold anymore.

I’ll stop because I don’t like listening. I sound ungrateful. At first, teaching’s rewards came easily. I recognized I reached people and drew inspiration from it. Repetition, however, inured me to its pleasures. The once novel becomes regular, and the regular becomes, at times, tedious. If you’re going to pan for gold, you need either abundant returns or easy access.

The worst combination is inadequate returns for immense effort. Yet that’s what many teachers experience, particularly when, for good or bad reasons, their students start to see them as serviceable and undistinguished, another part of the place. “Oh, you have him,” I overheard a freshman saying in August, “hasn’t he been around for, like, forever?” She wasn’t talking about me, but I fear her 14 year-old “forever” might include me.

Go to sites offering advice on teacher burn-out, and they abound with inspiration for keeping yourself fresh and relevant, for capturing students’ curiosity. These sites suggest you teach familiar material in unfamiliar ways, choose new books rather than repeating ones you’ve encountered multiple times, experiment with new technology to revitalize students’ interest, organize your work and streamline your effort, come to school earlier so you can leave the job behind as you exit the building, find some hobby—perhaps keeping a blog—to curb obsessive thoughts about students’ progress, make a change by teaching new subjects or at new grade levels, and establish fixed times to talk to other teachers about their strategies for avoiding burnout.

Experienced in these methods—there are more,  but these I’ve tried—I see them as laborious access to once abundant gold. Perhaps it isn’t fair to group them under the command “Work harder” because the returns are greater. New books and subjects are intellectually stimulating, always exciting. Yet the start-up costs—studying and planning—wear you down when students may not know the difference or not appreciate fresh materials and methods any more than old. New technology is especially laborious, as adolescents tolerate trial and error poorly. Imagine watching someone tie his shoes for the first time.

Sometimes my mind drifts. I’m in a brownstone with eight to ten devoted young scholars. They love learning as I do, know its labors well, and turn simple instructions into brilliant, illuminating insight. We read new books together, and most discussion comes from students. They don’t worry as much about getting into college as they do about understanding what’s before them today. They use technology without worshiping it and don’t automatically equate “new” and “good.” Though I’m their teacher, I need no plans. I nudge them in one direction or another but mostly revel in their excitement, which isn’t admiration or appreciation for me but the joy of having the company of an enthusiastic guide.

Gold dust rains, and I don’t think about eternity or labor or exhaustion.

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Thoughts in Third Person (8-15)

hqdefaultThe second half of the lyric essay posted on Wednesday 6/5.

8.

After hundreds of pages, Henry Adams’ illeism feels different. His chief complaint about the modern world is that it had no place for him. He never exactly says so, but his alienation seems plain nonetheless. The rest of humanity sees matters one way, and he another. Yet he can’t help feeling right. Perhaps he hopes others will agree.

9.

Writers sometimes inject themselves into narratives, as when a character sits down across from a novel’s author on a train or, after presenting a stray bit of dialogue, the narration identifies the speaker as the book’s author.

These moments ostensibly announce artifice. Lest the reader forget a story has a creator, there he or she is, suddenly present and intruding. The author, this sudden appearance may imply, is merely another character, another fictional creation.

But why couldn’t an author’s reality be a nod to fact? 18th century novels sometimes referred to characters as Mr. ___________ because they wished to protect identities when, actually, authors fabricated these identities. If the author lands suddenly in a scene, then perhaps he or she was there recording, did live these events, even if much of the rest the author dreamed. Is the creator’s appearance artificial or the closest brush with witnessed reality?

10.

Maybe fiction means to disorient, to lull readers into false security and then shift the rule of horizon, earth, and sky and make up down and the opposite, to establish everything as chosen and arbitrary. Everything becomes intention. No place remains for comfortable observers, and everywhere is someplace deliberately strange.

11.

The conceit of modernism—and post-modernism after it—is that it’s all fiction.

12.

Episodes of the 1960 children’s program “Romper Room” included an odd moment with an emptied hand mirror. Through the open space where reflections normally appeared, the host peered into the camera and said, “I see Gwen, and I see Alan, and I see Debbie, and I see David….”

These names may have been random—or perhaps producers harvested them from fan mail—but, to some of the program’s audience, such encounters must have seemed real and frightening. Children usually protected by confident subjectivity may not have been prepared to be called out and seen by everyone—or by television, as close to “everyone” as a child can consider.

13.

Despite his multiverse and third-person stance, Henry Adams creates companions in readers. They sit to listen, and, in doing so, expect something they know. They also expect to hear what they don’t know, but only sympathy compels them to keep silent and still. They expect to be drawn in. They desire it.

14.

Notes after a loved one’s death sting with sympathy. They are sweetly painful and elicit the oddest gratitude. A shared appreciation and acknowledgment of pain seems an essential stage of separation. “You will move on,” these notes seem to say, “but you’re permitted to revel in the exclusivity of your grief. You may mourn.”

15.

Henry Adams had hands and feet. He sat in trains, laughing with friends, and perhaps strangers. He turned his head to scan the landscape slipping through the window and smelled smoke and pollen, food and filth, perfume and decomposition. His eyes moved to his wife. His eyes moved to his memory, to the page of handwriting before him.

He gathered everything he made and pored over it, grooming the words until they spoke just what he wished or the closest he could come. He must have thought of readers, even if he invented them.

They would know him. He would have to be sure of that, I’m sure.

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Thoughts in Third Person (1-7)

henry-adams-2Another long lyric essay in two parts to avoid trying anyone’s attention…. the rest will appear on Saturday, 6/8

1.

Henry Adams, great grandson and grandson of presidents, Harvard history professor, and early voice of modernism, wrote a third person memoir, The Education of Henry Adams. In it, he skips over twenty years—much of his marriage—and only obliquely refers to his wife’s suicide. He cannot name her or discuss the event and includes only a description of his visits to the Saint-Gaudens monument he commissioned for her grave.

Is his third-person omission love or cruelty? Did he wish to erase her or was he saying she, and his years with her, were the one aspect of his life beyond words?

2.

After his wife’s death, Adams wrote John Hay, “The world seems to me to have suddenly changed, and to have left me an old man, pretty well stranded and very indifferent to situations which another generation must deal with… I have been thrown out of the procession, and can’t catch up again.”

Adams tastes bitterness in everything, and, even if he never utters Clover Adams’ name in his autobiography, her absence seems another shadow in a dim and disappointing life. Any report of comfort is missing too.

3.

Using third person doesn’t shake the message from the messenger, nor does metaphor, imagery, or elusive syntax. Observers see the author hiding in the scene. That dwindling candle is his longing. The photograph without a frame is his conception of life in our age. Light scattered through that crystal bowl is a spectral vision of idiosyncratic perception.

Authors remain as long as readers look to find them.

4.

Michel de Montaigne believed, “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” Montaigne thought even his idiosyncratic observations and revelations would be understood because his readers must also be idiosyncratic in their own ways.

Moderns are not so sure. Henry Adams coined the term “multiverse” to describe the product of irreconcilable perspectives. Subjectivity destroys the uni-verse because two people never experience the same scene or reach exactly the same understanding of it.

“Exactly” seems key phrasing. Any degree of disagreement signals the impossibility of a shared perspective. To speak in third-person, as God might, is just as much an invention as speaking as oneself.

Montaigne said he could express himself and humanity all at once, but, apparently, he was wrong—humans don’t know anything, least of all themselves.

5.

Writers sometimes prefer first person narration because they think they can speak directly using a voice that, if not themselves, is at least some facsimile. Yet first person can be challenging too. As inventions, first person narrators must communicate character, and not just in what they say but also in their expression, the fingerprints of their voice.

And omission is no less critical. First person narrators omit without noticing. They still leave gaps for readers to fill and, in the process, allow readers to observe more than the narrators notice themselves. They grant readers judgment, just as third person narrators do.

6.

Hidden authority is ominous. A voiceless, faceless perspective dictates what’s known and also what world readers occupy. Insufferable first person narrators can be smothering, but readers can walk away, rejecting this character’s take on the world. Third person leaves little choice but to believe. Third person says, “This is real.”

Yet it may not seem so.

7.

When a person uses third person to describe him or herself it’s called “illeism.”  Lebron James, the Big Lebowski, and Bob Dole are notable examples, and when they slip outside themselves and look back, a listener senses oblivious—often comic—egotism. Once a reporter asked the baseball player Wade Boggs why he always referred to himself as Wade Boggs, and he replied, “’My father always told me not to be a braggart, not to say I, I, I.”

It’s hard for a person to voice his or her name without elevating it. To go third person is to go big and expand a solitary view into something cosmic.

Parts 8-15 on Saturday…

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