Tuesday, February 9, 2016
February 9, 2016: Teacher Tributes: Proal Heartwell
[For this year’s Valentine’s Day series, I decided to share some of my blog’s early Tribute Posts on teachers I have loved. Leading up to a special weekend post on a very special teacher!]
On the challenging and vital art of getting through.
I like to say that I gave some thought to teaching high school English before settling on grad school and college teaching, and that’s not untrue, but the bottom line—and I’ve always known it at some level—is that I couldn’t get through a career teaching at the high school level. In my admittedly individual and limited experiences (in public schools, which are the only ones I can speak to), many of those English teachers who had made it to retirement age in that demanding and under-appreciated and –paid profession did so by shutting down in significant ways, by dulling their love of the subject or their desire to connect with their students on a day to day basis or similar core aspects of what we do. I’ll never forget my junior year American lit teacher, for example, who, realizing that we didn’t have time to read Melville’s Billy Budd as planned, told us we would watch the movie instead—and then, when we ran out of time for even that, just spent five minutes telling us the entire plot and ended by saying, “That’ll do.” The really passionate and committed and innovative English teachers, on the other hand, the ones who clearly couldn’t do their job without staying in the room every day and in every way, seemed to burn out very young and leave the profession.
As I saw it then and as I have heard from friends and grad students who teach in the public schools up here, there are plenty of practical and administrative reasons for that trend—requirements from the school system and the state (and now standardized testing and outside agencies), the difficulties and dangers of assigning works that might be controversial or anger parents or fall outside of certain boundaries, the need to do things like grammar and vocabulary in ways that might have nothing to do with one’s own pedagogical ideas and goals, and many others—, but if I had to identify one overarching factor, it’d be the difficulty of getting through to the students themselves. If and when I complain about trying to get my students to read or be interested in what we’re doing, I try to remember how much more difficult it would be with 15 year olds, kids who aren’t paying to be there and didn’t in any sense choose to be and have everything going on that 15 year olds do and think it’s nerdy and horrible to show any interest in a class text or topic and etc. And when thinking about that doesn’t make me feel any more inspired, I remember that getting through to those kids—to any class—is difficult but not impossible, remember a soft-spoken man with a Southern accent and an abiding love for Faulkner and singer-songwriters and the Black Mountain poets, remember maybe the most pitch-perfect, Robin Williams-movie-like name of any teacher I’ve ever had: Mr. Heartwell.
I had Proal Heartwell for two classes—AP English and Advanced Composition—in my senior year of high school, a time when you’d think, when I thought, that my love for reading and writing was already pretty fully developed (I had, after all, signed up for AP English and Advanced Composition). But Mr. Heartwell proved us both wrong, on an almost daily basis, and in more ways than I can possibly detail here. The first thing in the morning journal free writes set to music that each of us got to bring in and share with our classmates; the unit on close reading song lyrics of our choice (as a sneaky way to get us analyzing poetry) that I have shamelessly cribbed for my own Writing I syllabus; the dense and difficult texts (from As I Lay Dying to multiple Shakespeare plays to, yeah, the Black Mountain Poets) that he found ways to get us to open up for ourselves, to feel as if we were making them alive and new; the cassette tape with more than an hour of feedback that he gave each of us for our short stories; the poetry reading he organized for us and emceed at a downtown book store. I don’t think I remember with any real specificity or vividness any one assignment or unit from any other high school class—most of my high school memories are of that time I should have asked her to dance, that humiliating day at lunch, and, y’know, that other 15 year-old kind of stuff—but I remember all of those from Mr. Heartwell’s classes, and many more besides. Would I have majored in History and Literature in college, written a thesis on historical fiction and American culture, gone to grad school for a PhD in English, published my first article on Faulkner, if I didn’t take those classes with Mr. Heartwell? Maybe. But I’m not sure I would have gotten through senior year and high school without him, and I know I wouldn’t be the teacher and reader and writer I am.
I don’t think I ever quite told Mr. Heartwell any of this—no final scene with all of us standing on our desks in this movie, at least in part because luckily no one forced Mr. Heartwell out; he did leave at a later point to found an innovative middle school for girls, inspired I believe by his own daughter. But I have to believe that he already knows how much he was getting through to us, how much he got through the obstacles and requirements and got right to the core of what makes teaching and literature and reading and writing alive and vibrant, meaningful and valuable.
Next amazing teacher tomorrow,
PS. Teachers to whom you’d pay tribute? Other loves you’d share?