Sunday, August 9, 2009

On the Importance of Excellent Teaching: A Tribute to Sally Littlefield | Kevin Swanwick

Study hall was quiet and I was deeply immersed in the complex moral crisis of Frank Campbell, protagonist of the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. novel, Mother Night. I was taken away, as a young reader can be, to a place less banal and more profound than what seemed an unsatisfying teenage existence.

“Kevin, another Vonnegut?”

“Oh, Hi Mrs. Littlefield, uh, yea I know it seems like a lot, but soon I’ll be done with all of the novels – I want to finish them.”

“Kevin, you need to start reading some other authors; there is so much more out there.”

I had not been a reader in childhood. It wasn’t that I had trouble reading, or even disliked the activity; it was more closely related to the fact that playing outdoors, riding my bicycle and studying dinosaurs were all more interesting. The reading that was compulsory at my Catholic elementary school was not of whole books, but bits of work exercises and short biblical retellings, packaged with pictures for the young mind. Most of it left me looking out the window. I didn’t know what a book could do. The first book I can recall reading all the way through, was the short and syrupy novel Love Story by Erich Segal. Originally written as a screenplay for the movie of the same name, Segal had been enlisted to write the novel so that it could be published before the film’s release. My encounter with it was by accident really. My oldest sister Debbie had been a foreign exchange student in Great Britain and in my thirteenth summer it was time for our family to reciprocate the exchange. Our house had three bedrooms: Mom and Dad’s, mine and my brother’s and the three girls’. It was decided that the girls would use temporary, nightly arrangements: younger sister Pattie bunked with little brother John, Debbie and Mary Kay would move into the cleaned-up basement where Dad had put down a cover rug and I’d be with “Andrew.”

When Andrew arrived from the UK, we all did what we could to make him comfortable, but his awkwardness was overpowering, especially in a verbally busy household like ours. There was lots of jousting and sarcasm, tools of the trade in a big family where personal rivalries and competition needed to be carried on with wit, when physical force was either ineffective or imbued with adverse consequences. In the evening, while Debbie was off with her British friends, I had the dubious responsibility of keeping company with Andrew. At thirteen there wasn’t much I could interest him in and he would answer most of my inquiries with one-word answers. Well over six feet tall, Andrew was gangly, with an overbite and looked oddly like the young T.S. Eliot sans eyewear. He reclined on one bed, reading and smacking away at a lollipop, while I uncomfortably reclined on the other. He kept the light on long after my normal bed time as he read his book. With nothing else to do, I noticed the paperback on the night table. This was my introduction to the literary form known as the modern novel. As I began to read the tragic love story, I was quickly drawn in. When it became apparent that Jenny Cavelleri was really sick, I encountered a dilemma: I was welling up with tears and shuddering. I’d been duped by Segal and there I was at thirteen, sobbing over a book. I had to finish the book in secret, so that no one would see me crying; this was not something that an Irish Catholic man-boy should get caught doing. While I wouldn’t count Love Story among the list of important books, it was my first encounter with the power of written words and their ability to evoke human passions, thoughts and emotions.

That was the last book I read until I met Sally Littlefield in a classroom. A pretty woman with an angular face, she had bright and lively eyes and a husky voice and when she conversed with you, you were keenly aware that she was paying close attention and thoughtfully considering what you said. I believe she was a student of people, particularly young people. I don’t know if this was an acquired skill, developed over years of teaching English or an innate gift that flourished in an educational setting. She was always teaching. I first met her at the age of 11 when my friend David and I fished, uninvited in her pond. The pond was set on a beautiful corner property at the bottom of Fletcher Street in Goshen, NY, just inside the village line. She came out to greet us and talk with us, certainly performing a discreet safety survey and then welcoming us to fish as long as we’d like and offering us some lemon aid and a cutting board with a proper knife to clean the fish with.

“Do you know how to clean a fish?”

“Oh yes, we do it all of the time; we just forgot our gear. Thank you.”

Several minutes later we would deliver her a grotesquely butchered sun fish, scales intact and chopped into bloody sections, including the head. Neither of us knew how to clean a fish.

“Oh, dear; why don’t we bring that inside?”

We didn’t have a clue that this fish was unsalvageable. We stepped inside her revolutionary war-era home to fetch our lemon aid and for the first time in our lives saw antique hand-hewn beams, over 200 years old, across the kitchen ceiling. She gave us a brief history of the house and we left with the idea that it was likely that some of George Washington’s troops had billeted there and perhaps George himself. The imagery was delightful and we returned to the pond looking around at nearby fields, wondering where the troops lined up and where the Indians were. Perhaps the Indians watched from the wooded hill above us, which separated the village from this lowland site full of rye grass and Queen Anne’s Lace.

I stayed in Catholic school until the seventh grade and then, at the urging of my friend David and the acquiescence of my parents, transferred to Goshen Middle School. Bigger sports programs, more kids, science labs and a real gymnasium had me lurching between the anxiety of being accepted in a new social network and the excitement of all of the new opportunity. Still, I read no books and left studying as an unexercised activity whose lack of existence in my world was an ontological problem for someone else, parent or teacher, to discover. The first day of ninth grade at the CJ Hooker High School building started with “home-room” where attendance was taken. From there we each set out for our first real class of the day. Mine was English. When I arrived at class, I knew something was peculiar: I recognized most of the kids, some of whom I knew, but I had never been in a class with them before. What is different, why am I here?

Mrs. Littlefield introduced herself to everyone and explained what kinds of things we’d be doing in class and it was clear that we would be reading and writing. The first book assignment was S.E. Hinton’s little novel, The Outsiders. We were to read as much of the book as we could and write an essay on it. For some reason, perhaps because I knew Mrs. Littlefield already and didn’t want to make a bad impression, I read the book and wrote the essay. The day after papers were handed in we sat in class for several minutes with no teacher in the room. Then suddenly, Sally Littlefield’s head popped in through the door, from the hallway.

“Kevin, would come here please?” She was holding a piece of paper in her hand.

What had I done wrong?

My mind was spinning, trying to think about what antics I had been involved in during these first days of school and who on the faculty had discovered them. I walked out to the hallway. Mrs. Littlefield addressed me softly, in a low voice.

“Kevin, you do not belong in this class and I want to apologize to you. You were mistakenly placed here.”

Holding my Outsider’s essay in her hand, she said “You have done good work here and you need a greater challenge than this class will give you. I also want you to know that I teach a creative writing class and I think you would enjoy it. Why don’t you sign up for it?”

“I’m taking you down to Mr. Miller’s class and starting today, that is where you will go for English class, OK?”

“Yes Mrs. Littlefield. Thank you.”

Much as my lack of studying was a non-event to be discovered by someone else, my lack of a correct academic placement in ninth-grade English was a non-event to be unearthed. And Sally Littlefield unearthed it. In Bob Miller’s class we would read from Edith Hamilton’s Greek Mythology and discover classical literature of different genres. Ancient Ionic images whirled in my head with the drama of Persephone being snatched from the fields of Enna by Hades and later being rescued - romance and treachery, side by side, woven into classical myth. Mr. Miller, perhaps anticipating some resistance to the material, used humor in a way that kept most everyone’s attention. In Mrs. Littlefield’s class we would study and practice writing, read and discuss lyric poetry, the short form and other samples of good exposition. We would write and reveal our work to others for criticism with Mrs. Littlefield pointing out good samples. When she graded your writing, she identified the cliché and the disjointed by asking a question as to the relevance of the image, phrase, sentence or paragraph. You were encouraged, but always asked to do better. Her written questions, seemed designed for the fragile adolescent ego and were delivered in a way that gave you enough space to figure out that you hadn’t really put in enough effort or you were being careless or maybe, you were trying to show off and in so doing, writing in an inauthentic way.

In Mr. Giattino’s Social Studies class we listened, from a 33 RPM turntable, as Bob Dylan sang The Times, they are a-Changin’. I had discovered, I thought, a poet of a different kind and immediately began to listen to more Dylan records and enthusiastically introduced this exciting artist to my friend and Beatles expert Tom Degan. In the midst of his own adolescent intellectual explosion, Tom introduced me to the Kurt Vonnegut Jr. novel Breakfast of Champions. We were off to the races. Later we discovered the influence of the French Symbolist and American Beat poets on Dylan’s work and then read those writers. The love of art and literature had begun and a new lens was placed in my mind’s eye.

What is a good teacher? This can surely be explained in a technical way, leveraging pedagogical theorem and science. But it seems clear that a student who has experienced the lasting influence of a teacher in their lives is uniquely qualified to offer an explanation. Sally Littlefield changed the way I think. She changed the way I looked at the world. She helped me translate undifferentiated musings - day dreaming – into a more disciplined and focused passion. She allowed me, and others, to develop an esthetic sense of literature and life, to learn history, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, politics, religion, spirituality and much more from works of fiction. In Shakespeare we learned about human nature and the discreet character of personality, realizing only later that anything Freud and the psychoanalytic school had “discovered” about human psychology, Shakespeare had described in detail centuries before and in a much more compelling way. Great books, with the guidance of a great teacher, offered us different views of the world and enough space to inhabit them, try them out and sharpen our own reasoning and esthetic sensibilities. Romanticism and Naturalism, the world as it ought to be in a hero’s mind versus the way the world is with its varying degrees of existential meaning. All of this came rushing like a wave from the stage that Sally Littlefield created in her classroom.

One day after a review of my latest writing assignment I asked “Mrs. Littlefield, do you write, you must be very good.”

She smiled and paused before she spoke, as if I had touched on something very personal. “Well I have done some writing, but not as much as I’d like. Do you know the book A Day no Pigs would Die?”

The book, a novel for young adults published by Knopf in 1972, was the first of many by Robert Newton Peck, and told the dramatic, hard luck, life-and-death story of a farm family in Vermont. In later years, when the Moral Majority would come into being, the book would make it on to banned book lists, due apparently, to its graphic depiction of swine reproductive behavior and slaughter in a small farm setting.

“No, I don’t know that one.”

“Well, Mr. Peck had a contract to write the book and his manuscript was delivered incomplete and needed more work to be finished. I was asked to finish the book and I did.”

“Wow, did you get credit for that?”

Her bright eyes twinkled. “He started the book and it was based on his experience growing up in Vermont, but I did receive a small attribution with initials, in a very tiny way, in the first edition. You have to look closely to see it, but it’s there.”

I was thrilled. Her modesty was genuine and I sensed she was a little embarrassed, but I could see that serious writing must have played an important part in her life.

More than any teacher I have ever known, including all of my college professors, Sally Littlefield used her version of the Socratic Method to both inspire and educate. Most of what I know about teaching others in my professional career I learned from her.

One of the most important things that can happen to a young person thrust into that uncertain space between childhood and adulthood is intellectual awakening. While it may appear on the surface that learning is a slow and gradual process, my own observations and experience tell me that it occurs in sudden upheavals and explosions of varying magnitude. Good teachers know this and are skilled at setting the stage for the mind-life drama and getting the players to learn their parts. Sally Littlefield was the best. God Bless and keep her.

”And since you know you cannot see yourself,
so well as by reflection, I, your glass,
will modestly discover to yourself,
that of yourself which you yet know not of.”

- William Shakespeare