Wednesday, December 01, 2010

`An Exercise in Perpetual Discretion'

I look forward to the days when a retired middle-school teacher volunteers for lunchroom and recess duty. He’s seventy-eight and carries himself with soldierly rectitude and élan. His crew cut is silver and square, and his speech is clipped. He puts on his fluorescent orange vest as though preparing for a ritual or rite. We get along, in part, because we share a stoic sense of humor: We find enduring amusing. He’s a Civil War buff and we talk Gettysburg.

His wife is a critical-care nurse and a few years his junior. Recently she had to stop working because of fainting spells, dizziness and occasional loss of sensation in her feet and hands. She’s making the round of specialists but there’s no consensus. By collating offhand remarks I deduce she, like her husband, is no creampuff. Tuesday on the playground he told me:

“I was a teacher for thirty years before I had a nervous breakdown. I took a leave, and then I worked one more year. I couldn’t do it anymore.”

I said nothing for a while and then asked, “You miss it?”

“Why do you think I’m here?”

A nearby group of boys was playing four-square, a game opaque to me, as most games are. Two boys started a shoving match, pushing with open hands against each other’s chests. We watched until one kid fell backwards. He was wet and embarrassed but unharmed. The retired teacher walked over, helped the kid to his feet and asked what it was all about. The usual heated explanations and excuses followed. The old man listened, asked a few questions and never raised his voice.

“All right, you two, knock it off. And shake hands.”

They did and the game resumed. Both boys are well-known hotheads and finished recess without incident. Jacques Barzun turned one hundred and three on Tuesday. In a 1991 essay, “The Art of Making Teachers” (A Jacques Barzun Reader, 2002), he writes:

“There is no such thing as the child -- at any age. Teaching is not the application of a system, it is an exercise in perpetual discretion. One pupil, too timid, needs to be cheered along; another calmed down for the sake of concentration. Correcting faults and errors must take different forms (and words) in individual cases and must be accomplished by the praise for the good achieved.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

For any of your readers who are interested, there's a recent hour-long interview with Jacques Barzun that can be viewed at the following link: