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'Letters to a Teacher'

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page BW15


By Sam Pickering

Atlantic Monthly. 242 pp. $19.95

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When people win a Pulitzer Prize, the joke goes, they now know the first words of their obituary. Just so, Sam Pickering -- a professor of English at the University of Connecticut -- must bear the glory and the burden of being forever described as "the teacher who inspired 'Dead Poets Society.' " Having never seen the movie, I know Pickering only as a prolific and very enjoyable essayist, one who can write equally well about academic culture, the natural world, the unalloyed pleasures of books and the mixed pleasures of family life.

Like the late Noel Perrin, Pickering is a master of the straight-ahead declarative sentence, and at first he takes getting used to. His voice on the page can sound, as he himself admits, "affected." To my ear, that translates as cutesy. He likes to tell down-home stories about the denizens of imaginary Carthage, Tenn.; he often adopts a tone that approaches the faux-naif; and occasionally he pushes his analogies further than he ought. For instance, he glosses the Grimm fairy tale "The Princess on the Glass Hill" -- in which the hero rides a horse up an impossibly slippery glass hill -- as a metaphor of what can sometimes be accomplished by ignoring the dictates of common sense and community opinion. A worthy lesson, nicely worked out. But Pickering doesn't let it go:

"In this book I mount a stable of hobbyhorses. Often I stumble, but occasionally I hope an idea will canter to the edge of a glass hill, and that you'll find yourself seizing the reins and saddle horn and galloping forward, if not upward."

Such a sentence would normally be absolutely damning. But Pickering possesses an innate playfulness, and it soon dawns on one that his prose is packed with low-keyed and persistent irony. The man knows exactly what he's doing:

"This past fall I taught a course in the personal essay. . . . 'How was [the first class]?' Vicki said. . . . 'Luminous,' I said. 'I was a beacon of light.' The next day I went to the university bookstore and chatted with my friend Suzy. 'One of your students wandered into my office yesterday,' she said. The boy was lost and did not know where to find books for his course. 'I'm looking for a book called The Art of the Personal Essay,' he said. 'What's the name of the course?' Suzy asked. 'I don't know,' the boy said. 'What's the teacher's name? Suzy then asked. 'Pick-something,' the boy said. 'Pickering?' Suzy asked. 'Yes, that's the name,' the boy said. 'Oh, you are lucky,' Suzy said. 'He is a fine teacher and the class will be super.' 'I dunno,' the boy replied. 'I didn't understand a single word he said today.' "

Letters to a Teacher might be best categorized as wisdom literature. In these 10 essays, an experienced and sensitive teacher reflects on his profession and offers counsel to the would-be Mr. Chips or Miss Jean Brodie. For the most part, Pickering advocates devotion over dazzle, caring before charisma: "Do not let rules constrict your humanity." "Teachers should banish inspiration from their minds and labor to be competent and kind." "To educate for the future, one must educate for the moment. Classes should sprawl beyond particular subjects. In digressions lie lessons. Expose students to possibilities. Let them know about your fondness for china, birds, tag sales, and gardening. Talk to them about economics and sociology, to be sure, but also about places you have been and things you have seen and thought. Instill the awareness that for the interested person days and nights glitter."

Like virtually all teachers, Pickering loathes the paperwork, bureaucracy, government programs and phony official language of pedagogy. Once, being interviewed for a rather grand job, he was asked his goals. " 'Aside from seduction,' I said, 'I haven't had a goal since I was seventeen. I have outgrown goals. All I want now is to get through the years ahead without hurting people.' " He didn't get the job. Elsewhere he points out that "One of the sappy questions you will hear several times during your career is, 'What have students taught you?' Questioners want and expect an answer airborne with uplift in which words such as energy and creativity flare brightly. Give people the answer they want, then get on to other matters. Once after I addressed a group of parents, a father asked me the question. I made the mistake of being honest. 'Nothing,' I said. 'I am fifty years old, and my students are eighteen. Even if they had something to teach me, I would not want to learn it.' For days afterward I fumed, dissatisfied with myself because I had been unnecessarily harsh. Along with telling white lies, teachers should learn the proper use of the superlative. The more teachers praise and celebrate, decorating conversations with superlatives, the freer they will be to teach their subjects and the less they will have to regret. And certainly students do occasionally teach us, though what we learn usually is not as elevating as parents want to think."

At this point, Pickering points out -- you can see the smile -- something he once learned from a student: "the recto-vaginal technique of artificially inseminating cattle." The student was in the vet school, and by "learned," Pickering tells us, he means learned by doing. No question, what at first might have seemed a slightly twee smugness is clearly an iconoclastic, trickster humor. "Twenty years after leaping bright-eyed into the classroom, " writes our mentor, "teachers glance at desks and bulletin boards and wonder how they got there, in much the same way that husbands and wives stare across the dinner table and wonder how that man or woman sitting across from them slurping ice cream got into the kitchen."

In some ways, Pickering can be quite conservative -- he battles for correct grammar, believes in proper classroom dress -- but spiritually he's a child of the '60s and naturally enjoys any chance to subvert the dominant paradigm: "The truth is that many teachers teach only the basics. Not only can their schools not afford frills but their students are ill prepared for anything other than basics. Alas, these are just the students who might benefit greatly from frills, inessentials that break the sad tenor of their lives. Instead of serving these students an impoverished low-calorie diet of basics, schools might better serve community by dishing out frills, high culture that might startle and awaken."

Do I need to say that the more you come to know Pickering, the more you like him? "Unfortunately some of my books are dully cerebral. To tart them up, I inscribe the books. 'To Achilles,' I wrote on the title page of one book. 'In memory of the night we spent together at the bathhouse. You have my word Clara will never know. Love, Patroclus, your own little coochie-coo.' 'Blithe,' I wrote in another book. 'Can you believe that thirty years have passed since the seventies? You and I both have families. But sometimes I wonder what happened to our love child. She is now almost grown. How foolish and young, yet how loving we were. Your Spotty.' "

Certainly teachers will enjoy and learn from these "letters." But anyone who enjoys a short trot with a cultured mind will be glad to encounter Sam Pickering's essays. He exemplifies the virtues he tries to impress upon his students: decency, kindness, tolerance and understanding. Plus he's funny. •

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com. His weekly live online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

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