Jeff was, well, nerd-ish, even though, back then, I'm not sure the word existed. Not terminably so either, however, so maybe I'm overstating. Anyway, he was among my best students, and something of an eager beaver--aggressive in class. Ruddy complexioned, festooned with freckles, and just a little fleshy, he wasn't going to be all conference in anything--you could see that. He loved sports, I think, but didn't everyone back then? If he was on any team, he was, I'm sure, a bench jockey. But mostly, as I remember, kids liked him--at least, they didn't hate him, and there was an immense difference between those two attitudes in the high school where I spent my first year teaching.
A high-achiever maybe, come to think of it, a kid who really wanted to do well, not because it would look good on his record. That wasn't it. Jeff simply enjoyed school. Maybe that's the best way of describing him. He really did--honestly and truly--he liked school, liked learning. And he did well. He'd never be the valedictorian, but he did well.
I don't remember anymore who specifically it was we were studying that morning, someone 19th century, probably one of "the fireside poets"--Whittier or Longfellow. It wasn't Eliot or Pound or someone really, really dense for 16-year-old kids, but someone relatively easy, like Longfellow.
Maybe it was Oliver Wendell Holmes, "The Chambered Nautilus." That's a good bet.
"THE CHAMBERED NAUTILUS"
This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,
Sails the unshadowed main,--
The venturous bark that flings
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings,
And coral reefs lie bare,
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.
Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
And every chambered cell,
Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
Before thee lies revealed,--
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!
[There's more, but there's google.]
Back then, a month or so into my first teaching job, I'd become conscious of this odd talent I was somehow given: I could read stuff to kids and they'd be mesmerized, a talent I honestly didn't know I had. So I gave it my all, poured myself into the poem, read it--stem to stern--and looked up. They were perfectly mute.
"What do you think?" I said.
"What's Mr. Holmes saying here?" I probably said, or some other apt English-teacher question.
No one said a word.
Jeff raises his hand. He's sitting in the front row. I call on him.
"It must be good," he says. "because I don't understand it. That's the way it usually is in this class: if I don't get it, you love it. This one is good, right?"
I laughed, but he didn't. No one else did, in fact. As Hawthorne understood, a man who laughs alone is scary.
I never really wanted to be elitist, and Jeff made it clear--no malice intended, no cynicism, no animosity, just the truth--that I was, and that literature could be snobbish and impenetrable, even though I didn't think so. . .some of the time at least. When no one else chuckled, I stood there alone.
Today, Jeff is 55 years old, probably a grandpa. I can't believe he'd remember that moment. But I do because for me it was a teachable moment--far more rich for the teacher than the student. There have been many. I was only five years older than the kids in my class, but I understood immediately how this kid, Jeff, had created his own aesthetic, even though he didn't know the word: if he didn't understand a poem, he just assumed it was probably really good. That's what I'd taught him.
When I think back, that moment was as telling a measure of growth as 12 years of class photos. Nerdy, freckled Jeff, sitting right there in the front row, taught me something about teaching, and living.