When Teaching is a Calling
Win Bassett on Mentorship, Poetry, and Teaching Boys
A bagel place sits at the bottom of a hill, on the other side of a roundabout, from the boys’ school where I serve. When my now-fiancée and I moved to Nashville, I needed to reclaim routines in my life after two years of uprootedness in a New England city far different from the pastures of my upbringing in the piedmont of Virginia and the endless, wooded running trails of my life as a low-level, still-learning prosecutor in Raleigh. I had needed this always-temporary exile, however, to arrive here, where I believe my calling sat patiently during my searching—never a haphazard process but one always previously driven by status.
I went from engineering school to law school, from a 900-attorney international law firm to a district attorney’s office in North Carolina. I tell myself that my life has a narrative arc—I wanted always to teach. I had grand plans to start teaching law classes at night while prosecuting during the day. I would eventually transition to the academy, writing law journal articles and amicus curiae briefs for causes in which I believed. But teenagers derailed my misplaced ambition. I found that they yearned for someone to help them with the world and that I longed to help them.
I left law for a divinity school in the Northeast to study, among the usual subjects of seminary, secondary schooling and poetry. I knew I had to return home, to the American South, after my short but life-changing time in the landscapes of Frost. And the stars aligned to bring me to the “here” above—a boys’ school that will celebrate its 150th school year next year. All the boys study Latin for two years, papers are called “themes,” each boy must play a sport every season, and we diagram sentences by hand and on paper, starting in seventh grade. If this sounds like the school in the film Dead Poets Society, you’re on the right track—an alumnus wrote the script, and a statute of Robin Williams watches over our courtyards. To my boys’ rolling eyes, I embody Williams’ character Keating: We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.
I bring up the bagel shop, which has been here for more than 20 years (an epoch now in the fast-growing Music City), because our routine of enjoying bagels and coffee—sitting down sans phones—before church each Sunday morning graces me a sureness I continue to seek as I settle into new places, knowing yet this is where I belong. My fiancée comes from this town; she grew up, in fact, in a house one mile from where we sit sipping weak coffee. Her parents still live here, there. I liken my resettlement and her return to Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon’s move to Hall’s family farm in New Hampshire after they met at the University of Michigan. “I’m the one who worries / if I fit in with the furniture / and the landscape,” Kenyon writes in her poem “Here.” She grew up in the Michigan they’d left. Yet, “Already the curves in the road / are familiar to me, and the mountain / in all kinds of light.”
In the midst of writing this, I stumble upon Megan Mayhew Bergman’s essay for Ploughshares that begins much in the same way as this one. Megan recently moved from North Carolina to her husband’s childhood home in Vermont and found comfort, too, in Kenyon’s words and new rituals. “I developed my own routines. I went to the Shaftsbury Country Store for coffee each morning, found new hikes, painted our bedroom gray-blue, endeared myself to the goats, learned how to run on packed snow,” she writes.
* * * *
Father Tony Jarvis, an Episcopal priest who retired after serving for 30 years as the headmaster of Roxbury Latin, a boys’ school in Boston not unlike the one I’m at now, has told me no fewer than ten times in the three years I’ve known him never to say that I teach English or coach cross country. “You teach students,” he commanded. Serving a single-gender institution, I’m able to use the more intimate, “I teach boys,” now, and I can count on one hand the few times I’ve slipped into the former, detached words. Jarvis continues to reiterate, harp on, even, the importance of language spoken to children and young adults. Following his own preaching, he intentionally says the same lines over and over, and he tells the same stories over and over. This awareness of young adults’ needing repetition and reinforcement works; I remember them all.
There’s one line of his, however, that jumps from my synapses more than others during my days at school: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French philosopher and Jesuit priest, originally uttered the statement, and Jarvis never fails to give him credit. I say these lines to my boys when we encounter a piece of literature that explores our short and inconsequential time on this planet. “All that tread / The globe are but a handful to the tribes / That slumber in its bosom,” William Cullen Bryant writes in his poem “Thanatopsis.” My sophomores read this work, whose title loosely translates from the Greek to “a view of death.” In my tenth-grade sections, I can feel the boys’ minds turning when their eyes travel out the window as they consider, likely for the first time, the innumerable number of people who have come before them.
It remains difficult for me to reflect on Jarvis, an unabashed anglophile, without also thinking about the volumes of A. E. Housman’s and John Betjemen’s, two of Britain’s most beloved poets, that he gifted me. Both poets explore school life in some of their work, and Housman’s poem addressed to his Oxford roommate whom he loved comes to mind when considering our brief life. It ends,
Take them: for that day will come
To add us to the canceled sum
And give our bones to earth to rot
(For we have no immortal lot,
And souls that will not last forever)
And the chain of comrades sever.
Housman’s friend Moses Jackson moved to India while Housman remained in England (“I send these lines to you who went / Where stars rise in the Orient”). Half a world separated them, and soon, their additions to the “canceled sum” of all humankind, or to Bryant’s “tribes / That slumber” under the Earth, would forever sever their friendship. That our souls “will not last forever,” that we will not always have our friends with us, remain uncomfortable concepts for teenage boys to think about, and many in this age of trigger warnings and educational coddling believe children aren’t ready for these conversations. But this thinking runs into the same problem as new dogs, new children, a new roof—there will never be a good time. And what better time will there be than when these young boys sit before a mentor who believes guiding them through these conversations is his calling?
* * * *
“Mentor,” I recently learned, stems from a character with the same name in Homer’s Odyssey—an old, mortal man who is actually the immortal and female Athena in disguise. I discovered the word’s origins in an interview with A. E. Stallings, a contemporary poet who studied in Athens, Georgia, to find herself now making her home in the Athens most people study. Housman, a Latin professor at Cambridge, published his lines above in Latin, and Stallings translated them into English for an issue of Poetry magazine. In Stallings’s interview, she mentions several female mentors she has had in her poetry career and says she finds “it intriguing, by the way, that Mentorship is arguably a feminine virtue” given the word’s connection to the Greek goddess of war.
That mentorship might have feminine origins remains fascinating, but I’m interested here in the notion that mentorship, which I believe is a necessary component of effective teaching, is a virtue at all—I’ve never heard it described as such. And my mind wonders to George Herbert’s poem entitled, well, “Virtue”:
Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like season’d timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.
Those souls we know and love, those sweet souls full of virtue like stretched goatskins, never fall. I have no doubt that my many mentors, always teachers, will continue to live for me and for others when my world turns black. And I don’t presume to believe I will stand for my classrooms of boys like the hardwood my brothers and I couldn’t cut two Thanksgivings ago. (The wood’s ungiving bore laughter we hadn’t shared since we were boys.) The hope, however, that I am able to reach one student with a gesture (touching with words will likely remain a dream) is why I’m here. “The dew shall weep thy fall to-night,” Herbert writes. “For thou must die.” But the dew’s leaking will never be enough for me.
Beyond a few times with good bourbon, the mornings bouncing with oil-ringed coffee, a loving fiancée, and a golden retriever to whom I’m her world, few things have been enough. Writing and teaching (and naturally, mentoring) remain bipolar endeavors—alternating between elation and frustration—whose rewards, I’ve found, must be the undertakings themselves. Or rather, this is what I tell myself among days of blank pages, lazy explications, and repeated questions about performance. “Yours or your boys’?” you ask. “Yes,” I tell you. My own mentors warned me, and often like my students, I listened selectively. And I keep asking. W. S. Merwin’s poem “Berryman,” titled after his own teacher and mentor John Berryman, reminds me of this eternal cycle of enough:
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
Like a good sermon, these last two stanzas hit me the hardest when I need it—while I’m already down.
* * * *
I’ve come home frequently during my first year of teaching high school boys wrought with thoughts that they haven’t learned anything, or rather, that I haven’t taught them anything. And I have to remind myself of the educational philosophy I adopted from Father Jarvis. He sought and continues to seek “to help a student grow and develop not just academically but morally, aesthetically, physically and socially.” He cares “most of all, what kind of person a boy is.” This is observable only by the long arc of time—not by the test next week. Nonetheless, I often spend these evenings absorbing the materials for the next day’s classes with determined vigor—I read hours of criticism on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” and brush up on Horace Smith’s poem of the same title that he wrote in friendly competition with Shelley and find a photo of The Younger Memnon statue of Ramesses II in the British Museum (which may have inspired the poem) to throw up on the projector and ensure I can give a definition when the boys ask what “visage” means and run through my head how one might consider this poem to be ekphrastic and double-check that I know the term’s Greek origins. In my 47 minutes of class time the next morning, I ask one boy to read the poem out loud and discover that most of them have encountered the work in a previous grade. Well, shoot, I think. There go all those hours of prep last night. The boys tell me what’s going on in the sonnet—a once-great Egyptian statute is all ruins now, and its current state is ironic given the statute’s inscription, “‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’” While my sails remain deflated, the boys ask if I can pull up the YouTube video of Brian Cranston reading the poem in a Breaking Bad trailer. They know more about this poem than I do, I ponder, beginning a pity party of one.
After a black screen follows the meth dealer’s recitation of this early 19th-century Romantic poem, I turn to the boys in the few remaining minutes of class and ask how Shelley’s lines relate to their own lives. I get stares as blank as the glowing blue projector display on the board behind me. I’ve learned to wait them out. Don’t prompt. Don’t give them a hint, or worse, the answer you want. They need time to think as I did when first considering that I, too, will soon be less than Shelley’s “boundless and bare” and “lone” leftovers. Jeffrey Skinner’s lines from “The Company of Heaven” come to mind in my waiting:
if you let the deepest question enter you
it will emerge, not as words
but simplest elements: salt, water.
These questions are what I chase in my days with the boys, and it often takes bouts of frustration and resultant late-night preps to remind me why I’m here—not to teach English or poetry, but to teach boys. Thank God I have these conduits of literature that constrain me in my yearning to open up the light behind their eyes that seems to be shielded—pains from growing, pains from first loves and first losses, pains from home, pains from our expectations, and pains from the pressure that they must have this mess called life figured out. A voice inside of me jumps up and down each day I stand before them, crying,
It takes more than half a century to figure out who they were,
the few real loves-of-your-life, and how much of the rest—
the mad breaking-heart stickiness—falls away, slowly,
unnoticed, the way you lose your taste for things
like popsicles unthinkingly.
An inevitable fog envelopes boys during this part of their lives, where Barbara Ras’ line, “the huge mysteriousness of what they meant,” from the same poem above covers all. A boy in the back up-speaks in the remaining seconds of class, “Even the mighty will fall?” I want to tell him yes and the non-mighty will fall too and if we’re lucky, we will fall often and together.
* * * *
Amidst our falling and failing, I hope, too, that we—these boys and their teacher—will always recognize our calling to hold up the other. The bagel place down the hill from the school serves as a grounding during the week not only for me. With unfailing regularity a man—at least my father’s age—walks across the small parking lot each Sunday morning with his own father’s tricep in one hand—a familiar, tiny display of vulnerability that two men use to show they care about each other while maintaining a distance needed for comfort on both their parts. The elder sits while the younger orders and carries to the table. Over meals no different than our own, the two holler each week about the last Titans game, old friends and schoolmates who have moved back to town, who has changed jobs, and who’s doing work on whose home. They leave the same way they enter to return seven days later. And each Sunday I watch the two men, I tell myself that if the boys I teach now are one day in the same place as the son, I’ve done right in someone’s sight.