Posted by: zhiv | August 20, 2009

Glancing at Teacher and School Books

This was going to be a post about my own favorite teacher book, but I got caught up in the introduction. So that one’s next, I hope.

I got two good quick comments from blog homies recommending Stoner, which I’ll get right away. I hadn’t heard of this book, and I’m very curious.

In the meantime I did a five-second thumbnail list of teacher books and school books, at least a few that I remember, just off the top of my head. They’re fairly obvious for the most part, and when I get this typed up I’ll check on wikipedia and elsewhere for more titles that I’m missing.

The two teacher books that jump to mind immediately are Goodbye Mr. Chips and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Probably some statement on the power of movies with regards to books there, fwiw, and that’s another list: teacher movies. I should also mention that I’m making a distinction between a teacher book and a professor book.

I liked Brodie when I read it a few years ago, and the movie does a good, if not great job of holding up, as I recall, but I’m not sure I finished either of them. Can’t really say at the moment–pretty vague on it all.

Chips I’ve seen a few times and would gladly watch again, and remember the book being quite satisfying when I read it. This is the title I’m most curious about, because of the passage of time–that’s the thing I’m interested in right now, time passing in the career of a teacher. Chips is charming and quaint, of course, and it makes a nice comparison to The Headmaster.

Like The Headmaster, in the “creative non-fiction” category, I have a copy of Tracy Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren on my shelves. Years ago I was a bystander in the process of trying to turn this book into a movie, but we never got very far on it. The book was very well done, a close account in what I’d call the “year in the life” category of teacher books. Considering these titles as a group, one important question seems to be how close the reader gets to the teacher, her concerns and challenges, along with how teaching and school fits into a larger view of daily life and character. Another topic is the role of students in that life and the narrative. The story of at least one student, as I recall, gives Kidder’s book its poignancy, while its focus is on the relatively selfless, unrecognized commitment of a simple, seemingly average teacher. Its close focus might have made it somewhat topical and it would be interesting now to see if it feels “early 90s,” but Kidder is a writer I like quite a bit, and his books are on the same shelf as John McPhee’s in my library.

Closely related to the teacher genre is the school genre. A Separate Peace is the king here, unless I’m mistaken. There have to be a zillion of them, but it’s a question of categories, perhaps of crossing over from YA lit to general literature. It seems odd somehow that I think of Separate Peace as a school book, while I put Catcher in the Rye in a different, literary teen angst category–they’re pretty close cousins, obviously. I didn’t read Separate Peace when I was a teenage, when I guess I was supposed to, but I read it a few years ago, more as a parent trying to find books for my kids to read, while trying to educate myself at the same time. The question is how it holds up, as it must have functioned very well back when I was “supposed” to read it in the 70s, though I can’t recover a sense of what its impact might have been. It’s a good enough book now, readable and intriguing if not great, with some power to it. It sits for mee on the same landscape as Lord of the Flies somehow–adolescent fiction that addresses morality in a relatively direct and accessible way. That’s all good enough, and I’ll mention that my son–the lab rat here–read Flies in school and Rye, which seems indispensible, as soon as he could get his hands on it, but Separate Peace can’t get past his anti-reading force field. In this context, however, I’m less interested in the hard nugget of moral complexity at the center of Separate Peace, and more concerned with its more leisurely portrait of a school and its students, its boys. That part seems well-done and well-paced, a strong work of foundational structure for the larger whole.

Tobias Wolff’s Old School wants, it seems, to work the same ground with more contemporary technique. It’s another good book–it made the shortlist of memorable titles, after all. If you’re looking at reading habits, this is a book that I bought within the first week or two of its appearance, and read right away, very quickly. I’ve been reading Wolff off and on all along, althoug I could do a much better job of being complete, and he’s a valued author not unlike McPhee and Kidder, the same generation more or less (could check the dates). All of these guys are heading to the finish line, with good careers and good books behind them. Not that everybody is dying, but the deaths of Updike and David Foster Wallace this year perhaps provide markers for an epoch–one that happens to be my own.

Old School lies somewhere in Wolff’s gray area between fiction and memoir, probably closer to fiction since he’s a short story writer, but I recall the book being somehow presented as a memoir, while at the same time, not one. It doesn’t matter much, but it’s interesting to compare McPhee writing about Boyden and Deerfield at the beginning of his career, with Wolff’s look back at his school days. I don’t know how to describe the contrast, but there’s something very different about the newer books (Old School, Among Schoolchildren) and the old (Headmaster, Separate Peace, Chips, and Brodie), something very simple about the changing times and culture and perspective I suppose.

The last book–and I’m curious where it falls in the above continuum–that I’ll mention in this post is one that I haven’t read, Richard Yates’ A Good School. I was going to do a post on it at the beginning of the summer, when this blog was slumbering and I was typing up my Boston journal and busy running around doing nothing. Two things happened, both of them involving my son. First, he’s aware of style stuff, being a teenager, that I find kind of interesting (being a parent), and I found myself tyring to gain a rudimentary grasp of the crossover between skinny-jeaned hipster chic and the “old school” world of Take Ivy, big time these days, essentially the abiding elements of prepster style. Not my standard stomping grounds, but bear with me. A few links led me to discover that our old pal Mr. Yates, known for being very Ivy in his simple wardrobe, and his school book are cited in no less an authority than The Preppy Handbook, which suddenly took on a new interest for me–it was ananethma to my own late-DFH, Dazed and Confused zhiv/non-style. When I started reading Yates, one of my friends mentioned that he had heard of him and had read A Good School, and now that makes sense.

At any rate, I handed my son my unread (by me) copy of Good School, and he took it up to his room and read it that afternoon or evening, or both. He crushed it, or it crushed him, or (again) both. I had read the first couple of chapters before, and knew it was good and would be simple enough to read through, but I still haven’t done it. I’ll also mention that the poor kid read Revolutionary Road after Good School, though it took him a little bit longer. This literary parenting thing, it’s tricky. And I keep wondering: how tricky is it to teach?



  1. I’m not sure I want to think about how tricky it is to teach because I might find it paralyzing, and I don’t even teach the young ones … what jumps to my mind are books I read as a kid about school and teaching, particularly the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and the Anne of Green Gables books, where both are students and teachers. These surely influenced my thoughts on teaching, even though they taught in contexts unfamiliar to me.

  2. Slow to respond to this but I just wanted to say a bit about the Yates book (surprise!). It’s a curious book in terms of his own output with a rare foray into the first person narrative in the Foreword. dedicated to his father, it reads very much like an older man looking back and trying to address his younger self’s mistakes and carelessness; it is all very much about growing up and about his relationship – distant at best – with his father. If RR is some kind of apology to Sheila Bryant (his first wife), and their second daughter thinks it is, then this to me is a belated kind of explanation to his long dead Pa. It’s a kind of fictionalized memoir I suppose. I’m not mad about it but there are some very powerful passages and the best element by far is how he addresses a relationship with a parent he barely knew.

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