Traded my daylight
For a career
“Theory of the Crows,” The National
“I’ve yet to meet the writer who didn’t have an inspirational English teacher,” explains writer and former poet laureate Andrew Motion. “Mine was Peter Way,” adding:
This was his gift to me – and he gave it without ostentation, always speaking modestly and carefully, in such a way as to make poetry (in particular) seem an endlessly ingenious thing, but also as natural to the species as breathing. He lent me books from his own library, encouraged me to write my first poems, helped me to prepare for my university entrance and afterwards managed the transition from teacher/pupil to close friend/close friend. It’s no exaggeration to say that in certain ways he gave me my life.
My life as a reader, writer, and teacher also had its genesis in an English teacher, Lynn Harrill—my sophomore and junior teacher as well as my mentor and friend for many years since.
In the November 2003 English Journal (see below), I wrote about Lynn, highlighting how he steered the path of my life, including the initial impact:
1976. Mr. Harrill was my high school English teacher, though I had first met him over the summer as my drivers education instructor. I spent all of my free time at school in his classroom—an intellectual, emotional, and personal refuge for young people just becoming themselves. After I had read two Arthur C. Clarke novels, Mr. Harrill suggested I move on to Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe, and Lawrence. My life changed. We students were encouraged—not just allowed—to discuss and debate literature and the “Big Issues” of the day in Mr. Harrill’s class, and he happily refereed. We knew that he valued us as people; we knew that he loved us. And our lives changed. One day at break during my sophomore year, Mr. Harrill said to me, “You should think about teaching.” I laughed.
As Motion experienced, I was introduced to who I am by my English teacher, Lynn, who helped me on the course grounded firmly in words—reading voraciously, writing daily, and teaching with and about words.
So when I saw the tribute by Motion and then read a comment on my blog about poetry from a parent homeschooling in order to raise children as artists, I was moved to think harder about our obsession in the U.S. with “college and career ready”—an obsession decades-long and really about career, or most factually about using public education to produce workers-as-consumers.
To work and to consume in the service of others.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s masterful satire, Player Piano, Paul Proteus tells his wife Anita:
“No, no. You’ve got something the test and machines will never be able to measure: you’re artistic. That’s one of the tragedies of our times, that no machine has ever been built that can recognize that quality, appreciate it, foster it, sympathize with it.”
And while Vonnegut is taking aim at corporate America, I have noted the novel is also satirizing our reductive approach to learning and knowledge, the blind faith in IQ as a technocratic way to know if someone is ready to become that worker-as-consumer.
We should read Vonnegut carefully, and we should heed his warning.
We should also listen to Motion about how teachers matter, and we should step away from our insistence that the purpose of a human is to become a consumer.
Potentially, we are all creators, artists, and not in some condescending way that suggests frivolity, but in the way that is fully human.
As parents, teachers, coaches, and mentors, to foster creators and not consumers is the greatest gift we can offer another human.
And once again, I sit writing, and thinking, “Thank you, Lynn.”
I work daily to pay this forward on his behalf.