I was destined to become a sports statistician. From an early age, I had nurtured an obsession with athletes’ quantifiable achievements, going so far as to design my own charts and take thorough account of every nationally-televised game, hole-punching the results, and keeping them in a binder, the contents of which would reach beyond 1,000 pages by my sophomore year in high school. I even invented players (name, height, weight, age, birthday and birthplace) and created “career statistics” pages for them, complete with annotations (awards won, injuries suffered, league-leading totals by category). As a sophomore and junior, I was the official statistician for our high school football and basketball teams while also playing (and starting) on those teams, and, as a cub reporter for the local paper, my stories on JV contests read like a stock ticker. By the time I accepted a position as the baseball team’s statistician during my freshman year at the University of Arkansas, only a major cataclysm could have disrupted a story arc that would inevitably end with me sitting behind a table at half-court during NBA games, a fantasy of mine that most red-blooded young men my age in 1980 would have hesitated to admit.
Only in retrospect do I understand this, but some minor tremors had already shaken the foundations of my meticulously constructed destiny. For one, an unconventional high school art teacher of mine named Howard South had been so skilled at introducing the world of ideas into his Art 1 and Art 2 classes, and so attentive to my initial flicker of interest in such, that he would regularly (and surreptitiously, making me feel unusually appreciated) drop a slip of paper on my easel tray. I still remember the first one: “ ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ Thoreau.” I did not know from Thoreau, and the quote befuddled me, but I worked at it until I cracked its code. And, yes, I instinctively applied that to my fantasy of a career in statistics, with some misgivings, but I plowed ahead in denial. For another, I had also become obsessed with the lyrics of Bob Dylan, Johnny Rotten, and Elvis Costello, not inconsiderably due to Mr. South’s pokings at my grey matter. No one I knew shared this obsession, but I was an old hand at singular pursuits already, and, though this fixation seemed to regularly open up weird channels of understanding and delight for me and as a result seem less under my control than numbers, I never questioned it would be compatible with a statistician’s life. Finally, and disturbingly, my senior literature instructor had assigned a provocative college-level book to us, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, then proceeded to throw worksheets at us, tell war stories from his experience in Korea—and not once choose to discuss the implications of the novel. I couldn’t understand how a teacher could leave us in the dark, which he proceeded to do again a month later with that famously simple Shakespearean tragedy, Hamlet. When we studied that play (at present, I have taught it myself at least 10 times), we “learned” by reading it aloud in class, the instructor simply moving down the aisles in assigning parts each day and lifting nary a finger to either correct our blizzard of pronunciation errors or help us interpret the snowdrift of text. I’ll leave it to the reader to imagine the effect of that method on our learning. The test: 50 matching questions, quote-to-speaker. But, to repeat, this trio of quiet rumbles I neither connected to each other, nor considered any threat to the inertia of my career vision.
In some ways, it pains me to recall the coming derailing, destabilizing cataclysms. On one level, my story is one where a university education made all the difference, as the reader will see; however, the difference between a lower middle-class kid and his family being able to finance a university education in 1980 and the same kid’s chances in 2014 are sobering. The incurred debt necessary for our 2014 kid’s transition would, I suspect, put a career in teaching far down on the list of those that would facilitate efficient repayment. How many college students who would be transformative instructors will choose a more financially rewarding profession? The United States needs to provide a free public college education.
But I digress. Visiting the university bookstore with some newfound friends from my dorm, clutching my first-semester course list and a blank check from my parents, and having been required to read three-count’em-three novels my entire junior and senior high school career, I followed behind them up and down the aisles as they dropped the standard five textbooks into their baskets. Meanwhile, I, too, had picked up five textbooks; however, my ACT score had slotted me into an honors freshman comp-and-lit course (I do not remember choosing it, and cannot imagine I would have) and an honors world lit course, for which I was required to buy 29 paperback books—paperbacks were all they seemed to me at the time. I could barely haul my basket to the checkout line, and I thought dark thoughts about what my father would say when he saw the amount of the check (another pittance compared to 2014 dollars). Back in my dorm room, I spread out my new purchases on my bed—they completely covered its surface. I felt a chill, starting in my bowels, shooting up through my chest, out to my fingertips, and into the crevices of my brain: I had finally reached the point where I would be exposed as incapable.* I almost began to cry, until my neighbor Kenny thrust an illicit can of cheap beer into my hand for succor, the first of many that day. Later, alone, I stared blankly at the covers and titles of the paperbacks: The Crying of Lot 49, We, Emma, The Metamorphoses, The Inferno, The Great Gatsby, The Myth of Sisyphus, The Bell Jar, The Odyssey (hey—I KNEW THAT STORY), Song of Roland, Slaughterhouse Five, The Mill on the Floss, and more of which I was totally ignorant. I craned my neck to look at the stack of textbooks: two of them were Norton anthologies with dense text and membrane-thin pages. I remained in a kind of shock until I met with the two literature classes, where I was jolted into a new level of disorientation. In the comp and lit class, I would be required to read a book a week every week of the semester—as well as compose an essay for submission each and every Monday. In the world lit class, I was expected to pass every quiz, though I could throw one out, the problem being that each quiz, covering the entirety of, say, The Inferno, would be only three questions long, and missing more than one would, statistically, result in an “F.” Fortunately, my near-catatonic state following our discussion of those syllabi prevented not only weeping but projectile vomiting and potential contemplation of suicide (something I’d revisit differently in The Myth of Sisyphus).
At first, through fear of failure, indifference to the clock, and instant coffee, I barely survived. Then, a funny thing happened: I begin to really enjoy what I was reading. Gradually, the leap from Dylan/Costello/Rotten to Pynchon/Austen/Zamyatin seemed natural—and mutually reinforcing when it came to my ability to comprehend their output. The now-so-called paperbacks made the papers a breeze; I always had something on my mind from the former to connect to my own experience and knock out the latter. That, too, I enjoyed. And I enjoyed it tantalizingly more than I did writing up a basketball game. My cleft-palated world lit professor strolled in daily, smoking a Chesterfield King and wearing cut-off army fatigues and a Hawaiian shirt, then proceeded to enthrall us (well, at least me) with his dissection of mythological texts. I had never seen anything like him (though Mr. South had sported some bitchin’ sideburns) nor heard anything like him (his passion trumped South’s dry cynicism)—he had the courage to be himself, clearly. I dropped my biology class, very frankly to have more time to read the books and write the essays–because I enjoyed them, not because otherwise I could not have completed them. The fissure had opened, but not split me through.
The next semester, I deliberately took the second-semester section of honors comp and lit, which featured the same diet. By the end of my freshman year, I’d dumped the college baseball team, dumped the journalism major which I erringly assumed I’d need to become a statistician, and dumped “the dream” of being a statistician. I was staring into a void—in some ways, isn’t that the college sophomore experience?—but my eyes were smiling in anticipation rather than bugged in fear.
On another level, my story is very standard: the quest to learn how to do what you love for a living. I thought I had that figured out. I assumed, perhaps correctly (though for reasons which will become obvious I have never sought to know for sure), that a career as a sports statistician would bring decent financial rewards. It seemed specialized, and with specialization comes enhanced value, and with enhanced value comes a decent paycheck. At 19, however, I had not worked out the complete equation with regard to rewards—the idea that desirable rewards existed beyond the monetary realm. In many ways, though I hate to say it, my deficiency in life-math was the result of the stultifying educational culture I’d emerged from after graduating from high school (one Mr. South was not enough), and to a similar extent of the culture in which I’d been raised. My parents were farm-product Depression babies from Kansas who for very good reason wanted my eyes fixed on the bottom line. As I entered my sophomore year, bereft of a major (horrors!), I did not realize how thoroughly my cultural preparation would be upended by three special teachers.
I had chosen to take a folklore class, and the professor, Dr. Bob Cochran, brought in Howlin’ Wolf recordings, spoke fluent Dylanese, and showed films featuring Mardi Gras Indians and Professor Longhair. I thought to myself, “You can teach this stuff?” In addition, he was clearly on fire when he lectured. Numerous times, I left his class to walk down Dickson Street to Record Exchange to buy a record he’d referenced. I still own every one of them—except for one I have replaced twice from having worn it out!
I hated history because my previous teachers had killed the subject, but I was required to complete six credits of it, so I randomly scheduled myself into Dr. Reiser’s Western Civ class. I walked in, noted his advanced aged and somewhat bent form, and headed straight for the back of the classroom, where I could nod out undetected. Within 10 minutes, his utter command of his subject matter, his razor-sharp sarcasm in exploring the failures of human nature in the wendings of history, and his deftness with narrative brought me shame for having made such a choice. For the remainder of that semester, I sat center-front. I never took a note (and his lectures carried voluminous information); I just listened, riveted. I missed two points all semester, but racked up 45 bonus points from essay questions on tests. Simply put, I loved him and I loved the material.
My English lit instructor that year was Mr. Soos (yes: he was working on his doctorate!). An Ichabod Crane-like figure, he assigned perplexing but ultimately inspiring essays. Once, he simply scrawled the word “vacillation” on the board and said, “Personal essay on this topic, 1000 words minimum, due next Monday.” Class in unison: “What does ‘vacillation’ mean?” Soos: “Look it up.” In another essay for his course, I tried to argue that “Layla” by Derek and the Dominoes was the greatest song ever recorded (I winced as I typed that); he volleyed back in comments that were nearly as long as my essay with a counterargument for The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night.” Most important, during one class period he was expounding in very exalted fashion upon Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey,” and brought us to these lines, which he read aloud, voice mildly shaking with passion:
…then, If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations!
Nor, perchance— If I should be where I no more can hear
Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams
Of past existence—wilt thou then forget
That on the banks of this delightful stream
We stood together; and that I, so long
A worshipper of Nature, hither came
Unwearied in that service: rather say
With warmer love—oh! with far deeper zeal
Of holier love. Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake! –
Human beings writing in reflection, with hope of being read and with hope of entertaining as well as enlightening, often bend reality with imagination to those ends. Readers, this is as it happened. I can still see him towering over us, gesticulating, making the poem comprehensible merely by the power of his reading—and in that moment, the fissure split my old dream, and I clearly remember thinking, “THIS would be honorable to do for a living. Even if I am the only one he is affecting this way, his actions are worthwhile. I am seeing and feeling the world more clearly as a result of this—I’m different on this side of that passage from who I was on the other.” That epiphany was followed by a tumbling together of other connections: my cultural transformation, forged in that freshman-year literary baptism of fire; my abandonment of the empty world of sports statistics (finally, it was bean-counting, barely even mathematics); the necessity of chance (my automatic enrollment in those early classes; my spin-the-bottle choice of the folklore course) in my further enlightenment; the realization of how much was really lost by a classroom of students by my old teacher’s choices in “instructing” Dorian Gray and Hamlet; the almost unimaginable thrill that seemed to me guaranteed to be inherent in spending hours helping students read, hear, and write powerful things, and understand how they connect with LIFE; the grokking of the possibility that I was passionate enough myself about this material that I could effect a change in others—just like Cochran, Reiser, and Soos had done for me—that would lead them to make themselves richer, something that would have been impossible had I achieved my original dream. That was the missing part of the equation. Shortly thereafter, I found my counselor, changed my major to English, and, as they say, you know the rest.
I still awaken every morning to consult ESPN about Kevin Durant’s line in the box score, if he’s playing. I marvel at the analytics that can be squeezed from numbers to more deeply evaluate athletes, and chuckle as I speculate about how my 11-year-old self would have seized upon those. But I have absolutely no regrets about the three decades I have spent in the classroom. As if to goose that statement into being, just before I typed that sentence, I received a Facebook message from a student from two decades ago asking, “Where do I go next from John Coltrane?”
My dark thoughts remain that moments like the ones I have shared—many of them hinging on random choices, but made accessible by a healthier, more just economy—have become less likely to be experienced by current high schoolers, as the dream of college either slips out of their reach or requires a debt-yoke that would steer the passionate toward more lucrative careers. We shall see. It may be that they will have to, need to, turn to blogs to be educated, and to educate. Honestly, I hope not.
*I would later find that this state of being is common for someone who spends his life standing in front of classrooms. Thanks, David!