Selected Essays

Introduction

As I was about to leave my home of twenty-some years in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, and head to Colorado, a close friend asked why I was going. “I don’t know,” I said. “I just know I have to go.” With that, I crossed the threshold and headed west in my 1973 Ford pickup truck loaded with my possessions. Essential at the time, neither the pickup truck nor any of those possessions are now a part of my life.

It was and continues to be what I now call the Great Unfolding of my life. Unbeknown to me, I was acting on my intuitive sense and heading in the direction to which unseen arrows were pointing.

I knew not what I would do once I got to Colorado, but I felt confident that good stuff would happen. It did, and one of the most significant was that I became a teacher.

I had not given much thought to being a teacher when coming of age. But seeds for it were being sown by several teachers who encouraged and validated me, beginning in the second grade. Initially, I was placed academically in the middle-level class. After a month or two, I was moved to Sister Killian’s class, which was the highest level, where she placed me in the lowest reading comprehension group. “Gerald,” she asked more than once, “can I trust you in a higher group?”

“Yes, Sister,” I always replied. By the end of the year, I sat with the highest group, reading at an upper-grade level.

In the fourth grade, Sister Germaine named me the class’s top speller, for which I was given a trophy by the Holy Name Society. There were two others at St. Colman’s grade school who recognized my academic achievements, Mrs. Lafferty and Sister Elenita, who taught me in seventh and eighth grades respectively.

But it was a nun at St. Thomas High School who most significantly influenced me and helped alter my life’s course. When I first had Sister Marie Charles for a teacher in my junior year, I figured my fate was sealed: Either be drafted and shipped off on a possible one-way trip to Vietnam or enlist and maybe, if I were lucky, face a more benign fate. In my family, college was an unattainable dream. When I told her I was not planning to go to college, she seemed genuinely shocked. She thought otherwise and told me so. We learned early not to mess with Sister Marie Charles, so I went to college.

Through all those early-educational experiences, I was getting more than a sound education. I was developing critical living and thinking skills and a love for learning. Nearly a decade later, they caused me to blurt out to two friends, “All I ever wanted to be is a teacher.” I was stunned by those words because I had not said them after considered conscious reflection. They burst forth from a deeper part of my subconscious or higher conscious.

So I became a teacher. Initially, I struggled and bumbled as most rookie teachers do, but I listened to and learned from older, veteran colleagues until I eventually found my footing and developed my style. I realized early on that a particular instructional setting and a certain methodology did not work for me: straight rows and lecturing. Those coincided with a conscious realization that learning is not a commodity students are to be filled with like cans on an assembly line waiting to be filled with soup. I learned too that while I was an instructor, I was concurrently a facilitator of learning. And best of all, I was an incorrigible provoker of deeper thought.

I see education happening in one of two formats: closed or open. In the closed system, it is the role of the school and the teacher to instill into the student a knowledge and belief of preordained notions and constructs. My parochial education was within that philosophy.

In the open system, the role of the teacher (and sometimes the school as a whole) is to open the mind to new experiences and to foster the development of the student’s innate sense of curiosity. It is the liberal education mind-and-body model of the ancient Greeks. They looked at the world in which they lived through human observation, experience, and reason instead of through a  religious lens in which the mysteries that surrounded them were explained through transcendent powers. As a lifelong learner, I have been in a continuing process of opening my mind and doing what I can to help others open theirs.

When teaching American literature to juniors, I loved playing the dastardly role of defending the seemingly indefensible characters in novels and short stories we read. My two favorites were Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and Mayella Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird, whose actions led to two innocent men’s deaths: Jay Gatsby and Tom Robinson. In the ensuing discussions, we could then explore the difference between understanding and justifying another’s actions.

I have changed since boyhood and most pronouncedly since the days of my young adulthood when I projected an air of certainty and absolutism, of which friends from those days find mirthful pleasure reminding me. Back in those pompous, arrogant, rigidly conservative days, I held forth on what was true, just, and right. But gratefully, through teaching, deeper reading of the great literary and philosophical masters’ works, and listening to wise teachers like Joseph Campbell, I came to understand how ignorant I truly was. And I did not like that. At this point in my life, I am in search of the holy grail of the mysterious universe.

As an essayist, I am not out to convince anyone of anything. My self-assigned task is to present ideas to provoke thought. I do so out of the deepest respect for the intellectual capacity and reasoning capabilities of my readers.

Themes of these essays are drawn in large part from the lessons of my childhood, which I touch on in “A Slice of the Ice Cream.” They also reflect, of course, what I learned and discovered through my education and life experiences and what I am still uncovering and discovering. I make no claim of being any sort of guru or expert, so take from them what you will.

In the play A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More suggests to Richard Rich that he be a teacher. In reply, Rich wonders whether anyone would know it if he were. More seems a bit taken aback and suggests that Rich’s pupils and friends would know it. And God would know it. That’s pretty good unless one’s purpose in life is to gain prestige, power, or fame. None of those come with teaching, and that is the reality of the profession despite the fact it is at the pinnacle of professions because there is a teacher behind almost every successful human. But having been a teacher, I admit I am biased.

I am grateful that you have agreed to be my companion and coconspirator on my grail quest. I encourage you to jot down your thoughts or perhaps sketch visual images as you read. I also encourage you to palaver with another or a group on the topics. That is, after all, how we best learn.

Finally, I look forward to jawboning with you about your thoughts and learning, either in person or via email. After all, lifelong means just that. I’ll stop when I drop.

Happy reading and happy thinking.

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