Thursday, January 14, 2010

`I Shut My Book With the Greatest Relief'

I’ve reread one of my favorites among R.K. Narayan’s novels, his fourth, The English Teacher (1945), a sad book with moments of supernatural happiness. Krishna, the narrator and title character, loses his wife to typhoid, as Narayan had in 1939. He’s teaching at his boyhood school, and most of his students are loud and loutish with no interest in his beloved English literature. In the second paragraph he writes:

“I took stock of my daily life. I got up at eight every day, read for the fiftieth time Milton, Carlyle and Shakespeare, looked through compositions, swallow a meal, dressed, and rushed out of the hostel just when the second bell sounded at college; four hours later I returned to my room; my duty in the interval had been admonishing, cajoling and browbeating a few hundred boys of Albert Mission College so that they might mug up Shakespeare and Milton and secure high marks and save me adverse remarks from my chiefs at the end of the year.”

This passage sounds the lament of every good teacher, and some of lousy ones, I’ve known, though the situation in the United States today is probably worse than in Narayan’s colonial India. At least Krishna’s students are nominally literate. When I think of my own public-school education, I remember the principle impediment to learning being the dumb kids who were often among the loudest and most loutish, and who consumed an inordinate amount of time and teacher attention. They’re still around, of course, but there’s more of them and they have louder, more loutish allies – teachers. I don’t see this sort much in the special-education staff but they’re almost ubiquitous in mainstream classes. Here’s a profile that spans disciplines and grades:

No love of scholarship or learning; no broad experience of reading; full immersion in popular culture, down to clothing and language; a fear of sounding articulate or “elitist”; a pretense of egalitarianism, and kneejerk faith in multiculturalism; an obsession with pleasing and never offending students; a desperate wish to be liked by them, to be their friend.

In aggregate, these qualities form the anti-teacher who sabotages genuine learning without offending administrators or boards of education. Early in Narayan’s novel, Krishna must lecture on King Lear to a class of dolts. He recriminates himself for having to yell to quiet the boys and get their attention. His text is Act III, Scene 2, Lear and the Fool on the heath. Krishna makes his opening remarks – “The words rang hollow in my ears” – and begins to read Lear’s words aloud:

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks; rage, blow.
You cataracts and hurricanes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks.”

Krishna says:

“As I read on I myself was moved by the force and fury of the storm compressed in these lines….I read on. The boys listened attentively. I passed on to the next scene without knowing it. I could not stop.”

Krishna reads the passage that begins “Poor naked wretches…” and says:

“At the thought of helpless humanity I nearly broke down. The bell rang, I shut my book with the greatest relief, and walked out of the class.”

Such a scene is virtually impossible to imagine in a contemporary American school – the noisy, disrespectful students, yes; the conscience-stricken teacher powerfully moved by Shakespeare’s words, no. I have faith good teachers are working out there and feeling the strain and loneliness of their task, and I’m not suggesting nostalgia for a golden age of education. I had plenty of indifferent teachers, especially once I entered junior high school. Near the end of the novel, Krishna resolves to resign from his job and perhaps go to work in a nursery school. Thinking of his letter of resignation, he writes:

“I was going to explain why I could no longer stuff Shakespeare and Elizabethan metre and Romantic poetry for the hundredth time into young minds and feed them on the dead mutton of literary analysis and theories and histories, while what they needed was lessons in the fullest use of the mind.”

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