Hope in Little Platoons

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Reflections from a Teaching Career

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For 26 years, I taught hundreds of home-educated students, including my own children. My checkered teaching career also includes a semester in a university, two years at a prison, and two years in a public high school. During my last 15 years of that teaching, I conducted seminars for homeschoolers in Asheville, North Carolina, offering instruction in literature, composition, history, and Latin.

The students gathered once a week for a two-hour class and then returned to their homes with work ranging from an additional four to seven hours, depending on the subject. For example, a student taking Latin III and AP English Language and Composition would attend two separate two-hour classes, and would then complete at home about four hours of work for Latin III and four or five hours for the Composition class.

Despite the labor involved—I typically taught 24 hours per week and spent another 25 hours or more grading papers and tests, answering emails, and preparing lessons—this work brought me a great deal of satisfaction. Many of these young people attended classes for five and six years in a row, advancing from basic composition courses to subjects like Advanced Placement Literature or Advanced Placement European History. These lengthy enrollments allowed me to become well-acquainted with them and with their families, and afforded me the marvelous opportunity of watching students grow into young adults physically, emotionally, and intellectually.

Along with my other preparations for a new academic year, every summer I pondered what I wanted my students to take away from my classes, and every summer the same answers came to me. If they could take hold of some or all of these ideas and put them into practice, then the year would have been a success.

First, I wanted them to understand the importance of writing well. In every seminar, including the most basic Latin classes, I explained to students that nearly every job and profession—whether public safety, medicine, law, nursing, or engineering—depended mightily on clear communication. Using examples too lengthy for inclusion here, I demonstrated how an email or a letter written with beauty and power might bring them love and marriage, and how a clear, concise resume might win them the job of their dreams.

The talk was easy, but the writing was hard, on the students and on me. Often more than 100 young people annually joined these seminars, with many of them taking more than one class, and most of them wrote at least 20 papers, reports, and in-class essays between September and May. Some of them were required to keep journals; they memorized vocabulary words and poetry to put words on their tongues; they learned grammar by having their compositions edited, often by the Advanced Placement students I hired to make such corrections. The young people groaned and sweated over their papers, and I groaned as I corrected them, but by this arduous process writers are made. When you graduate high school having written 80 to 100 essays, you are well-prepared for college.

And prepared they were. Many of them became fine essayists, far more adept than I was at their age. Nothing delighted me more than to have a former student tell me how these writing exercises made for a stellar performance in some freshman composition class. Several, including two 17-year-olds, found work at their university’s writing centers, and one young fellow who joined the Marines received high compliments on a report he wrote for his sergeant, who was at first convinced that it was the work of the Marine’s girlfriend.

Reading was next on the agenda. In my last year of teaching, my youngest students were reading books ranging from Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam and The Essential Calvin and Hobbes, to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (we read the play aloud in class). The Advanced Placement Literature class tackled, among other books, Crime and Punishment, Othello, The Power and the Glory, and Wuthering Heights. In addition to various novels, plays, and histories, students in my British History and Literature seminars—I followed a three-year cycle of World History, American History, and British History—read from an old, fat Prentice Hall anthology, a treasurebox of poetry, history, and literary analysis.

During those 15 years, I observed a marked decline in book reading among my students, a circumstance I attribute to our electronic culture. When I first began teaching homeschoolers, cell phones were in their infancy, and the Internet was only a teenager. The students read books rather than clicking away on an iPad.

As time passed, fewer and fewer students showed themselves to be real readers. They had access to books on their gadgets, but preferred the vast playground of online entertainment to the requirements of time and concentration needed to complete a novel. Of course, we adults are no different. On visits to the coffee shop at our local Barnes and Noble, where I frequently graded papers, I was always struck by how few of the customers were actually reading printed or electronic books, but were instead jabbing away at their phones and laptops.

In addition, I noted an increase in the number of students who preferred to read, when they did read, fantasy and science fiction. With the exception of Ray Bradbury, I was never attracted to these two genres—something that some students doubtless regarded as a personal flaw. In my final round of teaching, my younger students read The Hobbit, another class tackled Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, and some older students delved into Tolkien’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But that excursion into fantasy was as far as we went.

That so many students currently enjoyed fantasy suggested several things. First, writers were producing some excellent work for teens in this genre. Second, the stories and characters empowered the students (Think Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games for the girls, Percy Jackson of The Lightning Thief for the boys). Finally, fantasy offered an escape from our news media with its daily and often hysterical pronouncements of catastrophe.

Which brings me to the study of history. In Josiah Bunting’s An Education for Our Time, which my Advanced Placement Composition students read for the novel’s vocabulary and formal style as well as for its remarks on education, the protagonist, a wealthy entrepreneur named John Adams, recommends that 30 percent of the college curriculum he is designing be devoted to the study of history. Not only can history teach us more about human nature, Bunting writes, but we can also learn the art of emulation by studying the great men and women of the past. In the old Roman sense, history can provide us with models by which we may improve our own character. I agreed, and so tried to select books that would give students that opportunity.

Clio can also offer comfort to us, young and old. Once, during the first year of the Obama administration, a young man in my class, who probably listened to too much talk radio, exclaimed that our country was declining and that the future looked bleak. “What can we do, Mr. Minick?” he plaintively asked. “Quit listening to all the doomsayers,” I suggested. “Study your history. Lots of your ancestors had a tougher life than you. Learn from them.”

When students encounter and discuss events like the Black Death or the Great War, and if those events can be brought to life for them, then they will have acquired one of the chief gifts of education, which is the ability to take the long view. Human beings in general may fail to gather many concrete lessons from history, but students of history can at least look to the past and realize that their ancestors suffered disasters and endured trials that make our own difficulties seem a walk in the park. This was the perspective I wanted to give my students.

My last two hopes for my students were non-academic. First, I wished with all of my heart to inculcate in them self-discipline and a work ethic. Unlike their peers in formal classroom settings, who are daily goaded by teachers to complete their work, my students did the bulk of their lessons alone and at home. This situation provided an ideal means of developing certain values—commitment, preparation, self-motivation—that would later serve them well in college and in life. Though every year disappointed these expectations—some students were lazy or sought the easy way out of their assignments—most of these young people completed their work and arrived prepared for class. Many of them were unaware of the powerful tools they were creating in themselves until they departed for college or the workplace, and found themselves fully capable of meeting the challenges life threw at them.

Finally, I had hopes that this study of history, of literature and poetry, and of Latin would contribute to the formation of character in those I taught. In Beauty Will Save The World, Gregory Wolfe writes that “...Hans Rookmaaker, the Dutch Calvinist art historian, once said, ‘Christ didn’t come to make us Christians. He came to make us fully human.’” Regarding literature and history, I am a student of the old school, believing as I do that familiarity with these subjects also helps make us fully human. To follow the tortured thoughts of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, to read the zany antics of physicist and Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, to discuss and debate the motivations of Roundheads and Cavaliers in the English Civil War, to have at least a passing acquaintance with the likes of Catullus, Caesar, and Virgil: these and many other pieces of literature and history give us words and ideals by which to live.

Sometimes, I am sure, I pushed my students too hard or cared too passionately. Once, a student, exasperated by some remark I’d made, said from the back of the classroom, “Why do you care so much about us, Mr. Minick? We’re not your kids.”

“No,” I told him, “you’re not my kids. But I have children and grandchildren, and they’re going to have to live in the world alongside of you.”

There are times, of course, when the future does indeed look bleak. Daily news reports illustrating the violence in our inner cities, the ignorance of our youth regarding their culture and history, the idiocy of some of our elected officials, and the baffling calls for more government and more spending affect me as they do others. And, like them, I sometimes give way to despair. I wonder whether my classes do any good at all, whether the education of these little platoons could possibly help turn the tide in the culture war.

But in the classroom, when I observed Grace as she pored over A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, when I watched Frank, who loved acting and singing, recite the first sixteen lines of Chaucer’s “Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales, when I listened to students argue the merits of American policies in the Middle East, I couldn’t help but feel gladdened. I hope that some of what they learned will assuage their future sorrows or add to their future joys, that the self-discipline which brought success in the classroom will bring them success in the future, and that they can make a difference in a dark and troubled world.

Dum spiro spero. It’s an old Latin tag I used to teach these teenagers. “While I breathe, I hope.”

And when someday I cease breathing, I trust my hope for these young people will live on in them.

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