Thursday, May 4, 2017

A Teacher's Natural Habitat

There is a natural habitat for a teacher.  It is a "sound and sweet and wise place" that is "surrounded by beauty and sanity," a place where "the whole human being, not disembodied chunks of him, is the focus of education."

And what may teachers expect in their natural habitat?  They should expect "the joy of teaching" and perhaps even a certain "happy boyish enthusiasm" as "souls [are] born in wonder."  They can expect "cheerful faces, and plenty of them" and "happy students" who are "not eager to leave, because they [are] having too much fun."

You will likely have one of two reactions to such a description of the teacher's natural habitat.  You may sit back and sigh with a faraway look of longing as you heart yearns for such an Eden.  You may also find a certain anger rising within you, a burning, righteous indignation that someone would even dare to describe a place that is so far from your present circumstance that it could not be glimpsed with the Hubble.

I know both of those reactions, but I also know that the descriptions offered above are about what should be, what can be, and what in some places actually is.  These descriptions come from two articles, one about and one by Anthony Esolen.  Tony Esolen was a tenured professor of literature at Providence College in Rhode Island before moving, after decades at that institution, to Thomas More College in New Hampshire.  In addition to being a teacher of literature, he is also a poet, an acute critic of contemporary culture, and a translator, perhaps most notably of Dante.  I have read him for years and can say only this...if you see his name on it, read it.

From the Kindergarten teacher to the dissertation supervisor, any teacher who has spent more than one year in this calling has known the joy of teaching that he describes.  They have known it at least once, or they would not have returned.  

In one article, Esolen writes, "Then came the joy of teaching. I’m a born teacher. I don’t mean to say that I am great at it—I’m quite aware of my flaws, which I’d rather not enumerate. I mean that even when I was a little boy I wanted to show people things, just because I liked them and wanted to share them. Teaching, for me, has always retained much of that happy boyish enthusiasm; it’s why I find it hard to understand people who turn teaching into politics by other means."

This is what teaching is...raw, unbounded, childlike enthusiasm. And if something like justice should come from it because it has been about the work of the true, the good, and the beautiful, then so much the better, but teaching is not first and foremost about justice or someone's finding a job or gaining a credential. It is not, as Tony Esolen puts it, politics by other means.  It is something much grander than that, taking in far more territory, and, when it is allowed to flourish in its natural habitat, it produces a harvest of many of the best things known to man.

And then in that same article he writes of one group of his students, "They were not eager to leave, because they were having too much fun. They were having too much fun—repeat this sentence three times carefully—reading Virgil in the Latin, with a gray-haired fellow they had never met before. I drove home almost in tears."

This is a joy like no other, and I have been blessed to taste it. Teenagers in a last period class on a Friday, deeply engrossed in their Latin and asking questions and contributing meaningfully to the great conversation...my friends, this, this is what education can be, and we must fight each and every effort to turn education, which, because it is a supremely human endeavor, must be characterized by life, into a zombie, the walking dead version of its true self.
So where is this blessed abode of teachers, this Elysium of education?  Some teachers find it by carving it out of the blackboard jungle in which they find themselves.  They must make bricks without straw as they guide and shape minds all while trying to turn their own schools into suitable learning environments.  This, however, is not as it should be, and while decent-minded folk rightly laud their efforts, families of students and the citizenry at large should never for one moment think that this is good.

There are also those who leave a toxic environment for one in which their teaching arts can be given full expression.  Esolen himself is in this category, and it would be pharisaical in the extreme to fault him for it.  He writes, "Sometimes a single encounter with what is healthy and ordinary—I use the word advisedly, with its suggestion that things are in the order that God by means of his handmaid Nature has ordained—is enough to shake you out of the bad dreams of disease and confusion."  By contrast he observes, "I came home recently from a day at Thomas More College, full of good cheer and energy, and for somebody who isn’t getting younger, those can take you a long way. They can add many years to your life as a teacher, whereas discouragement and disappointment lead to exhaustion."

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

To Be A Child?

And in my heart you will remain forever young. -- Rod Stewart

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. -- 1 Corinthians 13:11, ESV



Our school's chapter of the Indiana Junior Classical League offers a scholarship each year to one of our graduating seniors.  Part of the application requires that candidates pick a Latin quotation and use it as the basis for a discussion of the benefit of Classics to them and their own interest in Classics.

This year one of our seniors chose, "Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum."  This is Cicero's famous statement, "Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child," and it comes from Orator, 119.  At the end of a thoughtful essay, this student, who began as an 8th grader and thus took five years and prepared for the A.P. and I.B. tests along the way, had this to say.

Cicero
 "Being able to understand and parse themes from the Classical era develops a mindset for understanding the out-of-reach parts of the world, separated by either time or by distance.  That ability turns a person from a child, trapped in a singular world of self, to a person of the world, conscientious of those they have never met and may never meet.

"So ask me why I have spent the last five years studying a dead language of a people long since passed.  Ask me why I have bothered to translate classical works from the Latin instead of just reading someone else's translation.  Ask me why it matters if Horace was able to openly attack his contemporaries in his satires like his predecessor Lucilius or not.  My answer will remain the same:  I refuse to remain a child when I can be a person of the world."

It is not news to say that ours is a youth-obsessed age.  "I don't want to grow up.  I'm a Toys R Us kid."  That is the theme song of the present day.  I do not know whether this is the cause or the consequence of our failure to expose children to the great works of literature, art, and music.  Likely as not the two are now caught in a vicious cycle.  Anthony Esolen, yet again, sounds the alarm by merely stating the facts.  Would that those who had ears to hear should do so.  In that article, he cites Henry Van Dyke from an 1893 piece in which Van Dyke will not give in to pessimism with regard to literature, but expects a recovery from poets who merely "please a degenerate race with the short-lived melodies of earthly delight and the wild chants of withering passion."  Esolen is not so sure.  Actually, he is sure...that Van Dyke was wrong.

I would tend to agree with Esolen with regard to our literary and cultural landscape.  Yet there are, as there have always been, the remnants who know and are shaped by the true, the good, and the beautiful.  They are as Aeneas described the Trojan refugees in Aeneid I.30, "reliqui[ae] Danaum et immitis Achilli," the offscourings, if not of the Danaans and savage Achilles, of a society whose systems of education no longer read to become human and to make connection with humanity, but for much duller, more ephemeral, and sadly utilitarian ends.

Aeneas in the storm
I say these remnants exist, for I am blessed to see them in my classes.  Will those who read Caesar and Cicero, Horace and Vergil in high school turn the monstrous and sinking ship of our society, barnacled as it is with grotesqueries imaginable in another age perhaps only to a Dante?  Titanic's rudder was indeed too small.  Yet small is also the mustard seed, and while I am not sure I have its quantity of faith, I do have at least that amount of hope, and that hope stems from students like this senior.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Heritage of Teaching

2016 saw Indiana celebrate its bicentennial, and as part of that celebration, Hoosier teachers shared stories of the educational heritage in their families.  My family’s Hoosier education heritage stretches back to the late 1800s and has continued nearly unbroken to this day.



On my mother’s father’s side of the family, our story begins with my great grandmother, Flora Carlile, who was born in 1862 and taught in a one-room school house in Washington County.  Five of her children continued as teachers, including my great uncle Edwin Carlile (b. 1886), who taught wood shop at Froebel High School in Gary; my great aunt Bessie Pearl Carlile (b. 1893), who taught in a one-room school house and then the consolidated Finley Township School in Scott County; and my great aunt Goldie Ethel Carlile (b. 1896), who taught in a one-room school house in Scott County and then for 41 years at State Street School (renamed Lillian Emery Elementary School) and Silver Street School in New Albany; and my great aunt Myra Jean Bailey (b. 1899), who taught in the 1920s in a one-room school in Scott County.  Her daughter, Phyllis Anne Thompson (b. 1927), taught English at Scottsburg High School in the 1940s and 1950s, and Anne Thompson’s son-in-law, Joe D. Smith (b. 1946), taught English and served as librarian for 37 years at Scottsburg High School and Scottsburg Middle School.

Froebel High School, Gary, Indiana
Silver Street Elementary, New Albany, Indiana, preparing for a visit by President Bush
Scottsburg High School, Scottsburg, Indiana


Flora’s youngest child was my maternal grandfather, James Hanley Carlile.  Born in 1906 and named after Indiana Governor James Franklin Hanly, he taught in a one-room school house in Scott County in the 1920s and 1930s.

On my mother’s maternal side of the family, her cousin Ottis Ivan Schreiber (b. 1921) served as professor and department chair of English at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti.

With such an educational bloodline, it was not surprising that my mother, Patricia Lee Carlile (b. 1937) would want to become a teacher.  Further inspired by her own 2nd grade teacher, who captivated her attention in the mid-1940s with the first pair of red shoes she had ever seen and then drove her when she was a senior for a visit to what was then Indiana State Teachers College, my mom earned a B.S in Education from Indiana State and later an M.S. from the University of Wisconsin.  She taught fourth grade from 1959-1968 at Mt. Tabor Elementary School in New Albany.

Mt. Tabor Elementary, New Albany, Indiana

Pat Perkins

  

It was at Mt. Tabor that my mother met my father, Norman Ray Perkins (b. 1930), who taught sixth grade there after teaching sixth grade in Lake Fenton, Michigan (1957-1959).  He had earned his B.S. in Education from Indiana University thanks to the G.I. Bill after returning from service in Korea and later earned his M.S. from the University of Michigan.  After they married in December of 1967, my mom left teaching at the end of that school year.  My dad started in the fall of 1968 as the principal of Galena Elementary School in Floyd County and remained there until his retirement in 1992.

Norman Perkins


Galena Elementary School, New Albany, Indiana


My wife, Melissa (Stillions) Perkins, and I have taught Latin in Missouri, Texas, and Indiana, she at elementary, middle school, and high school levels, and I at middle school, high school, and undergraduate levels.  Since 1998 I have been the Latin teacher at North Central High School in Indianapolis and in 2014 was named Indiana Teacher of the Year.

North Central High School, Indianapolis, Indiana



Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Of Cabbages and Kings

I discovered something in a very roundabout way recently. Two years ago I wrote a blog post about a fantastic connection one of my AP students made between the act of translation and mathematics.

That post prompted one of my former students, Adam Washington, to write a couple of posts of his own. Adam graduated from Indiana University with his Ph.D. in physics. He is now at the University of Sheffield in England as part of the Polymer Physics Group and has published papers with such fantastic titles as "Porosity of Stöber silica observed by spin-echo small angle neutron scattering," and "Spin Echo Small Angle Neutron Scattering using a continuously pumped 3He neutron polarisation analyser."

Prompted by the post I had written, which was inspired by one of my current students at the time, Adam wrote "Linear Algebra for Linguists", which began to explore a mathematical way of looking at translation. He continued that line of thinking in "Intermediate Vectors for Linguists".

I discovered all this when he referenced his work in a comment to this article I had posted on Facebook.

Connections...one student inspiring a teacher who prompted a former student to combine seemingly vastly different areas of human understanding. No words. I simply have no words. This is teaching. This is education. Teachers and students and inspiration and ideas and discovery. How very sweet and wonderful it is.