Q: Why do you call yourself the black sheep of the family?
A: Well, I'm the only member of my immediate family who went to college. My family is geared to physical labor more than labor of the mind. My father runs a dry cleaners and my mother and sister have worked with him for the past 15 years or so. It's a very physical operation.
When I was younger, my father worked for railroads in Lynchburg, Va. On weekends he had a lot of projects around the house, painting, gardening, constructing, repairs, lots of things that had to do with the hands. My sister has had horses for 10 or 12 years, which provides a lot of physical labor, mucking the stalls, building things and delivering foals. Consequently their values have been based around the positive work ethic where physical labor is good and if you're not working with your hands you're suspect.
Q: Didn't your mother want you to become a baseball player?
Q: Why was that?
A: I was a good baseball player and I enjoyed it and it was something, I guess, that produced immediate rewards. You make a good play, you get a good hit, the applause, the recognition was there. I suppose as far as she was concerned the family could bask in the recognition because the family was in the stands; it was something the whole family could share.
Teaching is an isolated experience. My wife doesn't even know what I do here. She's never seen me teach. My family's never seen me teach. It's something that's sort of foreign to their experience.
I remember sending a sample of art work to a correspondence art school and they actually sent somebody out to talk to us about my art possibilities. I can remember during the whole time of the interview my mother was saying, "Well, he may be good, but I still wish he wanted to be a baseball player."
Q: What position did you play?
A: Second baseman.
Q: Are you glad you didn't become a baseball player?
A: Well, look at the salaries in the major leagues -- .
Q: You teach English and Latin. Isn't Latin making a comeback in the classroom?
A: The resurgence of Latin is a nationwide trend. One of the reasons is the practical benefit. As college entrance becomes tougher and tougher, the students are seeing a correlation between (higher) SAT scores and students who've taken a language. Latin offers a certain stability. It hasn't changed in years and it's a nice rock upon which to build one's linguistic abilities. I would like to think that it's because Latin is such an exciting and interesting course in and of itself that people are flocking to it.
Q: Translate this Latin phrase: Semper ubi sub ubi.
A: 'Always where under where" is the literal translation. I picked that up somewhere along the line. Kids respond to it in the foreseeable manner.
Q: So they have a little bit of fun?
A: I have them decline Coca-Cola, which is a nice first-declension, combination of adjective and noun. You have to be creative and look for anything possible in contemporary society that relates to anything that youre doing today.
It's hard to keep kids' attention these days. They're used to a lot more passive stimulation, and whether we like it or not, we have to entertain them. I heard recently of a teacher who said he was there to teach his students, not to entertain them. Anyone who says that is probably doing very little with the kids.
Q: You've certainly had your share of recognition and accolades for your teaching. Are you as good a teacher as everyone thinks you are?
A: Yes. It's something that I have always known that I have done well. I somehow managed to fall into an occupation that suits me very well. If you had asked me if I was going to be a good teacher when I was still in college I would have denied that I would ever be any good. The prospect of being at the front of the class scared me to death. I can remember the first time that I did it, my knees were shaking. My hands were shaking. I had pages and pages of notes to go through with my class and I assumed it was going to take at least five hours to cover. I was done with them in 15 minutes.
It's as if teaching is a role that I play that allows me, as a person, to put on the mask or assume a role that I play during the course of the day. It's almost schizophrenic, as if I'm two different people. If you saw me at home I don't think that would you get the sense that I am as good as I am in my profession. I feel sometimes that when I'm with people on social occasions or even with members of my family they hear about these awards and they don't see that. It's almost as if I'm two different people.
Q: What role do you play?
A: I am not a lecturer. I don't see myself as on top of the mountain giving out answers. I see my role as more a connecting device -- the link between knowledge and minds of students. I thoroughly enjoy making the connection. I'm very enthusiastic and I think that's to a large extent probably the single most important factor. I love when I teach. And I love to see kids learn. It's an extremely pleasurable activity.
Q: Isn't teaching a way of getting paid to read?
A: It is. I can remember at certain times sitting with an English class in a circle in a seminar situation and I can remember feeling so good about what we were doing that I actually stopped the class and told the kids, "I certainly hope that you all find an occupation that makes you as happy and is as fulfilling as I have managed to find." It overwhelms me.
Q: Does that kind of fulfillment come frequently?
A: Yeah, it does.
Q: Is there a high every day?
A: Not every day. It's not a constant high. But it is enough of one to allow me to go into each class with a sense of expectation and eagerness. You have to bear in mind that a lot of those students that I'm working for, these are upper-level students. I have a need for that intellectual stimulation. If I weren't getting that feedback from them, teaching would not be, for me, what it has come to be.
It's interesting being an English teacher. There are so many demands. There are so many types of stories that you can read and have to have some knowledge about -- sports and the sea and other places in the world, and various religions and philosophies. There is no sleeping on the job. When you teach "Moby Dick" you have to know something about whales and about the sea. When you teach "A Farewell to Arms," you have to know something about the First World War. When you teach "For Whom the Bell Tolls," you have to know something about the Spanish Civil War. "Oliver Twist" gets into the exploitation of child labor. "Ivanhoe," you have to know something about chivalry in the Middle Ages. It all comes in.
Q: What about the Latin culture and mythology. Are the students interested in that?
A: That's the big drawing point. We always spend some time on mythology and on Roman history. What the Romans (did) was so bloodthirsty -- their internal combats and the Punic Wars, calling for the destruction of Carthage over and over again, at the end of every siege. The Punic Wars ended in total annihilation. Not only did they raze the entire town and kill all the inhabitants but they ploughed the fields with swords in their hands. Total destruction. It really turns the kids on. You can see them pounding, "Get 'em, get 'em." It's amazing.
Q: When you read about the Punic Wars in high school do you remember students pounding on the desk?
A: Oh yes. That's I suppose a universal response. The Latin teachers that I had in high school were all elderly stately ladies so we were not really given the opportunity to bang on the desks and we didn't get into the military aspects of the Romans perhaps as we would have with a male teacher. I learn as a teacher to make connections with the real world.
I look at the Romans, the values that they embodied and the conflicts that were inherent in a society. Military intelligence, military buildup, the abuse of power, it's all there. Particularly during the Nixon years and the Watergate problems -- (comparisons) with the use of power by Caesar. The problem of legal rights and conspiracy with Cicero. It's the same old thing. Nothing's new under the sun.
Q: Do your students ever teach you anything new?
A: Oh, endlessly, endlessly. Every year, in every work we cover there is some insight that is thrown out or is mentioned by one of the students. There are times when I just want to step back and say, "Wow! Isn't that neat!"
Q: You could make more money doing something else.
A: I don't know. I don't know what else I would be doing if I wasn't a teacher. I've never really sat down and considered it. I might be out on the streets with my cup in hand and a library book in the other.
Q: When you meet someone at a social function, and you tell them you're a teacher, how do they react?
A: Usually with sympathy. Because of the monetary reputation. If the person who has asked the question is a parent, oftentimes their vision of hell would be to be locked into a room with 20 or 30 adolescents all day long. It's usually not a positive reaction.
Q: Do you ever feel apologetic that you have to justify why you're a teacher?
A: Actually, no. I always anticipate the negative reaction and I detach myself from the situation and join with the discomfited masses across the face of the question.
Q: Do you perceive teachers as having less status than they deserve?
A: Yeah, I really do. I'm not bitter and I'm not raising an angry fist against society. (But) yeah, it would be nice to walk down the street and to be as respected as a television actor.
Q: When students in one of your classes fail, do you think that's your fault?
A: Yeah. I take that very personally. There should have been some way for me to reach that kid. And unfortunately there is not always time and there's not always that recognition that it takes two of you. There's always so much that you can do for kids.
Q: Do you develop personal relationships, friendships with the students?
A: Er, yeah. I'm not sure that I would call these friendships necessarily. To me friendship would imply a sharing of problems and a sharing of burdens. I would never burden the students with my problems. I try to make myself available for them. I still have four students who stop by at my house during the summer. My wife and I have students over for dinner during school. And kids stop by the school here when they're back from college in the spring. I feel a very personal rapport with most of the kids.
Q: What's a typical class like?
A: There is no typical class. Every class has its own personality. There are some classes that you can joke with very easily. Some that you can converse with in a good-natured, bantering fashion. Other classes are composed of students who are of such different attitudes and faiths that there's very little common ground on which to work. I find myself in those types of classes sticking very closely to the subject. That is the common language.
There are personality clashes between students in certain classes which don't allow the teachers much freedom on the conversation. There are some classes that are highly self- motivated. There are other classes that have a constant need for pushing. There are some classes that are inherently enthusiastic about the subject matter and there are other classes that you have to sell your product.
Q: There's a chemistry there.
A: Very definitely. I think that bothers a number of educators. They are of a mind that we can train teachers to all teach the same way. I don't believe that's true. There are various parts of excellent teachers but they aren't all excellent in the same ways.
Q: Are you ever overwhelmed by the students? Do you ever think, gee, I wish I had been that way when I was 17 years old?
A: Oh yes. Constantly. I am overwhelmed by a marvelous insight or comment in a class. They can knock my socks off pretty easily. I admire a lot of things about some of these kids. Their ability to schedule their time. Their socialization is good, better than mine ever was. Their ability to verbally present their ideas is superior to my abilities at that age.
Q: Are you a little envious of your students?
A: I'm more envious of their youth than their talent. My memories of my own teen-age years was not entirely pleasurable. I'm not sure that I would want to step back in time maybe around the age of 18 or 19 when I was just finishing high school and going into college. I envy them that. Their talents? I've never thought of it that way. I wouldn't say that I was envious. It's almost as if their accomplishment is at least in part my accomplishment. I get a great deal of satisfaction and fulfillment in that. I try to structure the English courses in such a way that every year I'm reading books for the first time to keep me out of a rut, rather than going through them one more time through yellowed and dog-eared notes. In that sort of environment you think of yourself as a fellow student, or a fellow explorer.