November 4, 2011


In the September issue of “Harper’s” magazine, Garret Keizer, a contributing editor and author writes about his recent one year stint as a teacher at a high school where he’d been an instructor thirty years before. Some things hadn’t changed. The families of the students were still among the poor and working classes. The youngsters were polite and cheerful despite their underprivileged lives and he soon remembered that public school teaching is one of the hardest jobs a person can perform (pg. 34). The great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, himself once a teacher, mused that teaching was by no means “as as safe as redirecting the course of Western thought.” 

Having taught myself, I smiled at many of Keizer’s recollection and was saddened by what had changed. Given the new, regimented curriculum, the author was obliged to observe that “the day of the ‘lone wolf’ teacher is done.” What once was an art had been reduced to a craft.


As I consider myself to have been a lone wolf teacher, I paused to think of the students who had challenged me and forced me to be creative. In my list, one student stands out. I’ll call him Heathcliff, for such was his mood and demeanor. I met him in my English class during his senior year of high school. From his first day, his habit was to sit at his desk with his fingers stuck in his ears.The students around him giggled for a time and then forgot about him. I did not. How could I?  I was his teacher.  

One day I pulled him aside and asked him to explain his behavior. He’d been expecting the question, apparently, and had a ready answer. He said he planned to be a great writer and he didn’t want my instruction to damage his creativity. I was nonplussed, surprised…incensed. Then again, maybe he was right. Who was I to mess with the thoughts of a genius?

We struck an accord. He would work in the library, setting his own reading and writing curriculum. At the end of each week, he was to turn in his work and I would offer comments. He was free to correct what he’d done or not. Usually it was “not.” Still, he adhered to the bargain honorably and at the end of term, as I failed to see any spark of genius, I gave him an honest grade of C. He graduated with his class and like so many of my students, disappeared into the dawn of his own history.

To this day I wonder about my Heathcliff. We two lone wolves had made a separate peace. He taught me to be flexible, and I admired that he took the responsibility for his education seriously. The arrangement wouldn’t stand in today’s classroom. Still I do believe he learned something. It just wasn’t the curriculum.