When the Teaching Gets Too Real

Years ago, after a few years had passed since my father died, my mother called to say she was going to start seeing other men and wanted me to know. In fact, she said, she had a date that weekend and thought I might know him. This is probably rarely a good sign in such situations, and this proved no exception. She said he was a coach from my high school. Some little voice in my head, as she spoke, said, "Well as long as it isn't the old football coach." It was the old football coach. The next day, as I began discussing a scene from Hamlet in my senior class, we came to the part where Hamlet holds up a medallion of his deceased father and bellows, holding along side it one of his uncle, "You would compare my father to this?" Here the personal and the pedagogical met. I sat down and said to the class, "This is getting too strange, guys." I then proceeded to discuss with them what was happening, at which point a rather profound and hilarious exchange took place during which the seniors whose parents had divorced concluded "that you just can't talk sense to them (parents) when they are like that. Last night, for example, my mom brought home this guy and I said, 'Oh mom, come on, are you serious?'"

Now, years later, the football coach having long since departed from our lives, I am teaching Siddhartha in my senior class, the classic story of the young man who demands of his parents the right to choose his own path. While I discuss this novel in class with my seniors, my own son, whom I respect so very much, stands, not unlike Siddhartha, waiting for our consent to join the Marines when he turns 18 in a few months. Like Siddhartha's father, I want to prevent him, tell him he cannot; and like Siddhartha's father, I realize my son has already gone mentally, begun following that path he has marked as his own.

In the background, as I write this, President Obama announces that he will increase the troops deployed to Afghanistan by 30,000 in 2010. My son will be among them, or so I assume. There is only hope and prayer, faith in him and all he has learned and will go on to do.

In the meantime, it makes the teaching all a little too real some days.

15 Responses to “When the Teaching Gets Too Real”

  1. Humbling. As a father and teacher, thank you for taking the time to pen this reflective piece. P.S. My little brother spent 2 tours in Iraq with the Marines.

  2. I had similar experiences as a student with reading “As I Lay Dying.” I wish my teacher had opened up the discussion to personal connections to the story, rather than staying superficially academic.

  3. Jim, we only briefly met, but I can’t help but sympathize on this post. Thank you for sharing and godspeed to your son.

  4. Jim, we only briefly met, but I can’t help but sympathize on this post. Thank you for sharing and godspeed to your son.

  5. It’s great that you were so transparent with your students. I recently had one tell me that I was the first teacher they thought of as having a “life” outside of school. I think this comes from people keeping too much of a barrier between school and home life. While I think some of that can be healthy, I have no doubt your students see you as a real person, and that gives you power to impact.

  6. I read this on a sign at a gas station once. I have never forgotten it. “An empty nest is a promise fulfilled”. The hardest thing I have done as a parent is watch as my kids made decisions I didn’t agree with. My oldest has said to me several times that he wishes he had heeded my advice in the past. I finally told him that I didn’t raise him to do everything his mother told him to! I raised him to be independent and learn from his own mistakes.

  7. I will be thinking of your family and praying for your son.

  8. Thanks for this powerful post, Jim. It brought to mind what Jeff Wilhelm said at NCTE re: literature being “imaginative rehearsal for reality.” Even though the lives of the characters are never our own, reading gives us a way to explore the actions we might take and their possible consequences.

  9. Margo Kipps December 2, 2009 at 7:57 am

    Our generation were idiots when we fought for 18 year old vote and “adult” status. Few vote and none of them are adults, despite the protestations.
    This breaks my heart. Can you convince him to give it one year out of high school when he could volunteer at a vet hospital? A little separation from the halls of safety and time to grow up might help him see a different path to adventure. Just saying…

  10. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Jim,I am constantly humbled by the courage of the young. It sounds to me as if he has become a man you can be proud of. My class will be praying for him, and you.

  12. Jim,
    Given all your successes, and the admiration so many of us feel for you, it must be so tempting, or at least it would be so easy and understandable, for you to play it safe … but you don’t. You keep taking risks. I guess that’s one of the reasons we admire you so much.

  13. Jim,
    What a beautiful and thought-provoking piece. I think it’s beautiful that you shared such a personal thing with your students who have now internalized the literature themselves and related it to very real situations in their lives. Hamlet is now very real for them because of that discussion and making students relate to Hamlet can be a tough thing to do.

  14. Jim, thanks for sharing. I thought we were being challenged by our 15-year old, who is determined to attend a remote college in central MO to become a horse trainer. Your post reinforces the power of a network of friends and colleauges, as well as how important it is to count our own blessings. Not to mention, the challenges – and rewards – of parenting. Hang tough.

  15. Mrs. McCarthy December 3, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    Oh man. I really relate to this post. The unvoiced “No, you may not” to my own son – about different matters – sticks in my throat, making it difficult to swallow. But I’ve heard it said that God doesn’t have any grandchildren. My son is his own person, and I am not in charge of his path.
    Meanwhile, two of my students were hanging around my desk today, telling me how they were off to the Marine recruitment center as soon as the bell rang. They are not even mine and I wanted to hug them and tell them not to go. But I also see the promise of the men they will become and know that perhaps the Marines is where that promise will best be realized.
    Loving people is risky business.

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