They were the sophomore class of 2000, specifically my fifth hour English class. They were children of the desolate, and on one particular day I held everything back, which is opposite the phrase that says, “Don’t hold anything back.”
As students of the performing arts, they would come into my class just after lunch, all loud and bouncing off the walls, singing and acting in eager anticipation of more of the same after English was over. Having drama to the left and dance to the right of my class made my job especially difficult. My students were always oversupplied with the center of energy, much like my first hour seniors as well as my second and third hour juniors, all of whom suffered from the same but with less electricity. The school, in its second year, was a High School for the Performing Arts, the first charter high school in Utah. I was the entire English department, and my sophomores had just climbed to the neck of my impatience.
Before I continue let me set the stage. Prior to taking the position I was given a cargo of 210 students at a traditional high school. I say cargo because that is how I felt about the students; they were an unbearable weight of responsibility to teach reading and writing skills to every day, six times a day. Depression, sickness and discouragement consumed me. I passed out once in the bathroom and my wife took me to the emergency room on several occasions because I could not handle the panic, which came not from the apathy of the students, which was bad, but from the overwhelming and impossible task of teaching that many students in the face of such high idealism.
I began to ask, “Would a company require a manager to supervise over 200 people without several assistant mangers?” With four years of teaching college level courses under my belt, I could not live up to what education should be at the secondary level. And it was not that I had once reached my ideal either, but that I would never reach it that made me so sick.
Therefore, in the second year at this traditional high school in a bedroom community, and after losing forty pounds and working a second job tending bar at night, I came across John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing us Down. If a truly great teacher could quit and feel okay about it, then certainly a very depressed teacher could do the same. I resigned in the spring of 1999, just short of sadness turning to cynicism. It was miserable to leave a handful of students, especially my debate team and those students that I had come to love, especially Ben, Sam, Wayne and others.
The next fall I went back to teaching part time at a local college, only to find more student indifference than subsequently realized. Apathy was oozing to the top of the education food chain. I did not know it at the time, but part of the problem had to do with me. Nonetheless, after a year of this I was offered another job to build the language arts curriculum for Utah’s first charter high school, which brings me back to my story. I took the job and thought it would be different.
After a few months, I privately came to call the school The New High School for the Alternative Arts. As a new school, it became a quick replacement for students kicked out of other local schools and it was also a place for various quirks in personality to spread their wings, if you could imagine. Surprisingly, many found it appealing for the uniform requirement and the low student/teacher ratios. As a former actor in Hollywood, I thought I could handle 130 students, much fewer, but still not low enough.
I felt a strong need to mentor and be close to the learning of my students in the same manner done to me by two powerful mentors in my life. Although the anxiety and panic never surfaced with my new position, I started to become negative, until one day ennui stiffened my bones like a cold wet storm.
I even said it out loud to my fifth hour sophomores. I said, “You all suffer from ennui and I am sick at the core.” I said it while reading Emerson and nobody wanted to listen. It seemed, at the time, that nobody heard me. Instead, they wanted to play. They wanted to be entertained and to entertain each other in the same manner children play king of the hill. They wanted a show-and-tell-day and to be the center of it all. I then decided to take to heart something my father once said, “Never give a gift that will not be received.” And so, in the true spirit of holding everything back, I said with a smile and with uplifted energy, “Let’s play a game. Let’s play heads down thumbs up.” Sadly, they got excited and we played the game.
It was easy; a classroom of teenagers suddenly became all devoted and orderly about the event. I had control of the class and an odd euphoria came over me as if I was a great teacher. They were quiet, attentive, and deeply involved in the game, and I did this for several days, heads down and thumbs up. I took role at the start of class and then picked four students to start the game, and that was it. That’s all I had to do. For myself, I just sat at my desk and was able to organize my drawer and catch up on other things. I even surfed the net a few times while the class played a children’s game.
Something was wrong, though, and Amie, a student of vocal concern, started to get upset and bored, and so after a back-and-forth small debate with her I allowed her to sit outside and read Emerson quietly to herself. She took the offer and the next day other students, equally bored, were given the same option to play the children’s game or read quietly outside. By the next week half the class was outside the classroom. Some chose to read Emerson; most sat and discussed, in a soft voice, the lunacy of Mr. Kelsch inside.
Curious about their unusually quiet talk, I decided to sit with them outside and leave the remaining few to play alone, which dwindled to nothing after a boring day of hangman. Soon, we were all out of class, in the hall, talking like adults, quietly, as if big brother was watching. We were breaking the rules and I was not taking role.
I will never forget what happened next. I told them about the high school I just left. I told them about my depression, or socially affected black dog as Winston Churchill called it, and about what I thought learning should be. I gave them several essays and full-length arguments about the system of education we were stuck in. I shared all that I dreamed and had in mind to be. I gave them an essay by John Taylor Gatto and then I handed them Fahrenheit 451. They relished it in one week. Yes, we read and discussed a book in a week. They all became seriously bothered, and even more affected when we jumped into Brave New World, which took two weeks. We read Hamlet after that and jumped around literature like it was a candy store. My office was filled at lunch and discussion never seemed to slow down. I directed their minds where their questions drove them, even if it meant deeper water than what they were used to, even deeper water than I was comfortable with. This odd, on-the-floor and in-the-hallway style raised a few eyebrows.
Many students wanted to know why there was fear and evil in the world and, in true mentor character, I stepped out of my bounds and found a griping essay by Ernest Becker that summarized his book The Denial of Death. As student actors, they were given snippets of Otto Rank’s Art and Artist, and it was at this time that we learned that a student’s father committed suicide some years past. We also heard of students from a local high school that were killed in an automobile accident due to reckless driving. My students could not understand these things and so I finally, for the first time, held nothing back. I asked them to return to the classroom where I retold an event that happened when I was in school. It began like this:
“A teenager pulled out of the local Dairy Queen in his hot rod pickup and sped down the boulevard. Many watched him burn rubber and hydroplane over a film of water left from a recent rainstorm. Tragically, the teen swerved into the opposite lane and crashed into a diesel truck approaching from the opposite direction. All three friends in the back were throne out and killed instantly. Two others in the front, including the driver’s girlfriend, were killed. The teen driver survived with a broken rib and a crushed foot. Let me ask, why did he do it?”
“He was stupid,” replied a student.
“Stupidity does not explain his motive. Why did he do it?” I asked.
Another student said, “He needed to feel powerful?”
“Why did he need to feel powerful?” I returned.
“Because he felt insecure,” said the same student.
“About what?” I asked.
“Himself, I guess, heck I don’t know,” said the same student.
“Yes you do know. Why did he need to feel powerful?”
“Because nobody liked him,” said Amie.
“What does it mean when nobody likes you?”
“It means you are not recognized,” said Asia.
“What does it mean to not be recognized?”
“It means you are not powerful,” said Amie again.
“We have used that explanation already. What does it mean to not be recognized?” At about this time many gave up because we all eventually become frustrated for the same reason when our vocabulary is empty or when we refuse the logic that is obvious. But the students did not give up as I continued with the questions.
“Because he did not want to feel unimportant,” said another student.
“Why the need to feel important?” I asked.
“Because he just did not want to feel unimportant,” repeated the student.
“What does it mean to feel unimportant?” I then asked.” When you ask what something means, you force the mind to define. It’s the hallmark of good teaching.
“It means…that…you are not looked up to,” said Dallas.
“What does it ‘mean’ to not be looked up to?” I asked.
“It means nobody likes you,” said Amie.
They found themselves lost in a circle, so I repeated the question slowly for the class to help focus the issue, “What…does…it…mean…when nobody…likes you?”
“…You have no…meaning,” said a quiet Darby with hesitant reflection.
“What does it mean to have no meaning?”
“It means you are…alone,” said Darby.
“What does it mean to be all alone?” I asked.
“That is nothingness,” piped Neal, a freshman who snuck into my fifth hour class without me knowing.
“What is nothingness?” I asked with a stern look at him.
“Empty space” said Dallas to the side.
“What is empty space?”
“Oblivion,” said the freshman in trouble.
“What is oblivion?” asked another student.
“That is death,” said Tim in the back with the confidence that comes when you place another in checkmate.
“So, let me get this straight. The teen sped in his truck to get the attention of all those watching in order to feel important so as to have meaning, which he needed to deny his fear of rejection, which is really a symbol of death?” All the students sat puzzled and even frustrated. An honor student near the center of the class said, “Can’t you just say he was insecure? How does death enter the picture?”
“They are the same,” I said. “Is not rejection a symbol of death, at least as stated in the writings of Otto Rank, William James, Norman O Brown and even Shakespeare.” The class sat quiet for a while and started to connect ideas and experiences they had never linked. Some even developed a blank stare, especially a particular honor student not prone to conceptual linking that did not offer a ready-quick answer. I then welcomed them to “The Human Condition,” and the bell rang, for once, at the right time.
Lunch in the cafeteria was busy with talk. The lecture came to be known as “The big picture lecture,” and other students would play the Socratic roll and ask a similar line of questioning to other students. They were demanding that others define and make sense of human motives that are obvious but rarely taught as obvious. They revealed the psychology of their favorite musicians and typical teen antics; they saw politics in a new light, and a few could see (and accept) the fear in their own lives. Last came the private virtue of self-knowledge where some students became bothered with their own black dog for a while and most increased in their personal and social responsibility, which is public virtue. Take away the defensive posture of denial, and private virtue is given fresh air to breath.
Many of these students found their way to my home on occasion, and nearly one third of the entire school joined my debate team. I have mentored many students on an individual basis, but never an entire class. I looked forward to fifth hour English, and even to all my classes, but it was fifth hour English that lifted my heart. They inspired my wife to submit my name to be nominated as a torchbearer for the 2002 Olympics, and on that cold night I carried a flame of fire above my head and, in the crowd several of my students ran alongside with smiles brighter than the flame held above my head.
It was a sad day when I left the next year to take a position in higher education, and yet they still came to my house, and they continue even to this day with emails and questions, and I give them things to read and ask them questions to see where their minds are, and I always give my own thoughts in the exchange, but never in the context that my answer is the truth. I always say that the truth is like the Grand Canyon and that you know nothing unless you understand the history in each layer of strata. Luckily I understood human fear, which I used to connect the dots to other things. A liberal arts mentor is a book and a librarian. On one hand he has a singular strength, a kind of active world view, and on the other hand he knows what else can be found in the library. Depth leads to breadth, as one mentor taught me
In May of 2003, my fifth hour English graduated and I was there to honor them. Today, some are serving their country in the military, many are attending colleges throughout the United States, and nearly all have some kind of scholarship or dream to propel them. My only regret is not learning sooner about the spirit of being genuine.
A liber (Latin for book or classic) education is about letting go as a teacher and allowing students’ questions to surface. It is also more than this, for if I had not been ready with some basic literature or the knowledge that took me some years to figure out; I would have missed the chance to be a mentor. And had I not let go and allow my class to appear “off task,” I would have missed the chance of genuine optimism. A liber education is about classics, mentorship and virtue, something I learned in the nick of time.
A liber education is yours throughout your life, a slow line upon line of personal responsibility leading into social responsibility, which I have recently learned is private virtue leading into public virtue. The two combined define the mission of genuine optimism. This is what liber means. It is not a curriculum of must-know information, and it is not a bell to stop you in mid thought. It is a need to understand and a willingness to stand for that need mutually as mentor and student. More importantly, over time a liber education, for both student and teacher, holds nothing back. In the final turn, a liber education leads to leadership.
The greatest classics were never passed from teacher to student in a semester of school. They were passed from classic to mentor to reader and back to mentor. The cycle continues through a process of reading, writing and responding, and this back and forth dual mentor/student relationship fueled by the classics is the hallmark of a liberal arts education and the dying practice of a generation of experts. With such close contact to classics and the dialogue exchange with a mentor, the student receives a natural checks and balances against a poverty of private virtue. The end result is great leadership, the greatest contribution of a liberal (liber) education.
Many of my students keep in touch, and a student not well known from the class—the freshman who snuck in that one day—recently asked, “Do I suffer from ennui still?” Thinking that nobody heard me that day, I said, “No! But I once did, and let me tell you, it is something to fear.”
Many teachers complain about student apathy, and I was one of them. And because students would not listen to me, I became sick within. Had I known sooner that mentoring is listening to them and their questions and not what I had to say, I could have avoided much heartache and pain. Ask any student what love or joy or truth is, as I have done, and if you are not equipped with sound definitions to challenge their budding concepts, then you are not prepared to mentor and they will sense it. I was prepared in the letter of optimism, if there is such a thing, but not in the spirit of optimism. Two wonderful mentors gave me the former and providence led me to the later.
Today, when my students leave my home and when they write an email asking me to respond to their essays, a sense of faith wipes away the darkness that nearly overcame my hope. Therefore, if not for any achievement or accomplishment of my own, then at least a liberal arts education will improve the private virtue needed to always remain my students’ most obedient and humble servant. Great leadership is born out of this concern, out of a mission to build men and women of virtue, wisdom, diplomacy, and courage, a mission that inspires greatness in others and moves the cause of genuine optimism. Part of the challenge in being genuine is facing up to your own fear by accepting it. It’s not easy, but it’s certainly powerful. It’s true, a renaissance is coming. Genuine Optimists everywhere are making it happen, and all because they see a pathway to organize without the struggle for power; they are the first to see an open invitation to being genuine without retribution.