like artists and work like craftsmen. Nobodyis a better writing teacher than Ted. He has anuncanny ability to intuit the student’s intentionunderneath the tangled verbiage, and so theytrusted him, listened, took his advice. Some havegone on to become successful writers. Others justwrite the best memos and letters in their firms.
But the story about the thank-you note wasteaching other, more subtle lessons. Here was anacclaimed novelist and short story writer gladlytelling that he’d just had an epiphany about thereason we revise. Ted has what the Buddhists sayevery true master must have: beginner’s mind —which is not mere humility but rather the eagernessto learn whenever and however one can with joyand thanksgiving. Class with Ted was always anadventure, but so was lunch. He might talk abouta piece in the morning paper which made himwonder if “freedom of speech” was maybe anoxymoron, which might lead to the sign-languageproduction of Lear he’d seen the weekend before,which might lead to a hilarious story about somestudent’s wisecrack in class that morning abouthow Shakespeare used too many clichés.
Ted is constantly alert to a fresh perspective, anew thought, a surprising question. Everything isa part of his real-time education, the ideas he findsburied in student journals, passing conversationson the sidewalk, passages in novels he’s readtwenty times. Ted is the consummate school manbecause he is the consummate student.
Ted is the consummate school man because herolls his eyes at the stock image of the consummateschool man. A character in one of his stories, whois a teacher, makes a very Blainesque quip aboutthe saccharine portrait of school life in To ServeThem All My Days. Ted would have us all saygoodbye to Mr. Chips.
He never lost his clear-eyed, warts-and-all viewof school life, which seems to breed sentimentality(from the choruses of the school songs sungin opening chapel services to the graduationspeeches). To fall for that is to fall for cliché, andhis students and this hard, precious work deservemuch better. When visitors would sometimesshow up and ask if they might “watch class,” Tedwould later say, “I sometimes think I’m workingin Colonial Williamsburg.” But he was equallysuspicious of the cynical view of school.
I think of Ted when I hear Maria Popova’s wise
line, “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism.
Hope without critical thinking is naïveté.” Most
people, it often seems, tend to plod mostly on
one or the other side of this, but Ted has always
stridden in the wise middle as confidently as he
does in his daily walks around campus. I have
seen him exasperated, exhausted, and frustrated
but never ever despairing. I have seen him filled
with delight, excitement, and joy but never ever
wearing rose-tinted lenses. When I think of all the
lessons I have learned from Ted in the last t wenty-
eight years, this one seems to be central: We are
not characters in Dead Poets Society but rather
workers doing a hard, tedious job, sometimes
requiring the delicate patience of a watchmaker
and sometimes requiring the strong back of a
stevedore, but always requiring that we never let
our tired eyes or sore backs make us lose faith in
how very much it matters, how much beauty there
is to be seen, how much truth to be discovered and
It was his unblinking realism that preventedhim from thinking you could be a good teacher ifyou were simply charismatic and fun. He taughtgenerations of young colleagues that inspirationmust be invested with diligence, hard work,and long hours. It’s why you’d find him in hisclassroom working every night after dinner andevery Sunday afternoon. It’s why you saw himmeeting with students all day long. It’s why heprepared for every class. It’s why he’d head to thedorms in the evenings to find students who hadbeen unprepared in class.
But it was his capacity for radical hope thatinspired him to recruit kids who’d never actedbefore to audition for lead roles in plays and theconfidence to cast them and the patience to coachthem through to standing ovations on openingnight. It was his capacity for radical hope whichgot him to get a bunch of jaundiced seniors tocollaborate on a novel. His capacity for radicalhope enabled him to gamble on hiring rough-around-the-edges, unpolished young people tojoin the English department and to stay with themuntil they lived up to what he saw in them. Butthis hope has been possible precisely because hewas completely realistic about the challenges hewas taking on. He was famously devoted to hisadvisees to the point that he would cut short histreasured walks to go to a Bengal soccer gameor a JV wrestling match, but he had the courageto have those tough conversations with them, todemand that they be their best selves. This is whyso many of them keep him as a friend for life.