Dr. Sara deFord, my longtime teacher and mentor—with whom I eventually collaborated on two books—was a medievalist as well as a poet. While we Goucher undergrads were happily toiling our way through Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in their original Middle English, she pointed out that the description of the Clerk would fit perfectly a contemporary T(eaching) A(ssistant) working toward a PhD. Teaching at Forest Park High School while I worked toward my grad degree, I understood the aptness of the quotation. From spending my first 14 years of my total of 40 at Towson U., I was struck by how similar the Teach Assistant and the Adjunct are, and how both are fit to a T by the Clerk.
The funny thing about being a TA or an adjunct is that how many of these homeless, rights-less fledgling profs love their work; their exhilaration, if they are lucky enough to feel it at all, can transfer powerfully to their students. Both Lynda and Frannie, now among my oldest friends, were my students at Forest Park High School (FPHS) over 50 years ago. I am firming up plans for my annual get-together with Lynda, and my offspring and I consider Frannie a member of the family. I believe they graduated from FPHS in 1964. From FPHS students I learned, among many other things, that teaching was my true calling. (More so, even, than writing.) And I think what I learned to love best about teaching was how much it taught me. I had much to learn.
Fast backward to a January day in 1961, a teacher’s meeting day just prior to the start of the Spring semester. I had tacked up various cheerful pictures above the blackboards (they really were black and made of slate!) and written a quiz on the board (my mother, perhaps the wisest teacher I’ve ever known, said a daily quiz would give me a chance to “get myself together” before starting a lesson). I had put Mateus wine bottle empties with ivy in them on the wide, wide windowsills (we’re talking about the gorgeous old FPHS here, complete with marble halls and 20-foot high art deco goddesses holding urns on either side of the antique elevators). And I stared down at the rows and rows of antique desks, wood and wrought iron combos nailed securely to the floor. Empty desks. They seemed Escher-like. Nightmarish. I panicked.
But the next day, when the desks were all occupied by students, I realized (to paraphrase Winnie the Pooh’s Roo sipping from a medicine bottle), “This is what Clarinda likes!” Panic evaporated. Elation took over, though sometimes it kind of scared me to realize that, at 21, and THE TEACHER, I was the only so-called adult in the crowded room. As soon as the desks were peopled with, well, people, the back-and-forth, the teaching and learning in both directions, started.
My sense of “I can do this!” was greatly enhanced by Stanley Berdoff. I think that’s his real name; he won’t be mad at me if he reads this, I suspect. Stanley was not present on the first day. “Wait till Stanley gets here,” students told me, snickering. Stanley was the resident bad-ass. He wasn’t there the next day, either. On the third day, just as I was climbing via a desktop up onto the window sill to see if I could open a window (even with one of those long hooked poles I couldn’t do it), Stanley, late of course, swaggered in. The class held its collective breath.“You must be Stanley,” I blurted. “Do you think you could give me a hand here?”
In an instant Stanley leapt onto the windowsill as onto a charger and took the pole, the lance, from my hand. He jousted with the window and won. “Hey, when you need me to do anything for you, I’m right here,” said Stanlely Bad-Ass Berdoff, my shining knight. I like to recall that the class applauded, but I’m not sure that part really happened.
Then there was the enormous Vo-Tech class. Every semester I was assigned at least one of those: boys—no, young men—who were either deemed not smart enough for the Academic track or who actually chose to be in the Vocational track, taking wood shop and machine shop so they could go into the workforce right way. For obvious reasons, the guys in that track differed radically from one another in intelligence, motivation, you name it. That difference swiftly became apparent to me when I met ferociously intelligent Jimmy McCulloch (not quite his real name, for reasons which will become apparent).
Thirty copies of MACBETH had recently been delivered by dolly to my classroom, and forty-some eleventh grade vo-tech guys were struggling through it, many forced to share their copies. Mostly we read the play aloud and acted out the bloodiest or funniest scenes (vo-tech guys made brilliant witches). Fact is, Macbeth is perfectly attuned to almost-adult males, who understand masculine rivalry and also tend to be a bit sentimental; it wasn’t unusual for a couple of the guys to get teary eyed when Macduff cries “All my pretty ones? All?”
One day Jimmy lingered at my desk after class.
“Miz Lott, how much longer are we going to be doing Macbeth?”
“Oh, Jimmy, I’m sorry we’re going so slowly—you’re probably getting bored– but we should be done by the end of the week.”
“No, Miz Lott, it’s just that my uncles need to know when I can get back to work, and I can’t cut school while we’re on Macbeth.”
Jimmy was the scion of a family famous from Baltimore to Appalachia for its skill at parting out stolen cars.
Jimmy played Macbeth the rest of the week. And, when he was not too busy working with his uncles, he kept my moribund 1950 Morris Minor alive till the semester ended. Guilty secret: I never really liked Macbeth till then. Jimmy and his vo-tech cohorts taught me to love it.
Then there were the Basics. These were students deemed not smart enough to be in either the academic OR the vocational tracks. We were given guidelines for how to “cope” with them, and dumbed down rewrites of Macbeth (ditto Silas Marner, etc.) arrived unbidden to our classrooms for them to suffer through. A couple of other fledgling profs and I cruelly referred to the most challenged of these students as the Mopantew Kids. That’s because on one quiz a “Basic” youth spelled “potato” “mopantew.” Years later, as a direct result of teaching poetry at the university level, I noted that this “Basic” boy was close to being literate: unlike some of the poetry students, he understand syllables and the alternation of consonants with vowels and, most of all, accentuation. All somebody would’ve had to do was get him and others like him Hooked on Phonics. That was a lesson I learned too late.
As much as I learned from my high school students, both at Forest Park and at Towson High (where it was a student who told me that I had to read Dalton Trumbo and another who turned me on to Confederacy of Dunces), nothing can quite compare with what I learned from my “Editing the Literary Magazine” course at Towson University(TU), a class comprising the large staff of GRUB STREET, TU’s prizewinning lit and arg mag. On one blue-and-gold September morning, a beloved colleague, Peggy Benner, rushed into my classroom and plunked her “vintage” black and white portable TV on the front table. Not I, but the Grub Street editor, Hilary Szygiel, sat at that table, leading the discussion of the most recent batch of submissions. And that is how Hilarie and I and the other 30-some staff members watched the second Twin Tower fall in real time. It freaks me out—in a marvelous say—to realize that all of us, when asked what we were doing on 9/11, would almost certainly say the same thing, and, unless I’m a total exception, recall feeling a sense of connection like to few we’d ever experienced. To this day I feel grateful that I was part of what I consider the most important aspect of teaching/learning in a classroom: a sense of community unique in our experience. The community of scholars and vo-tech guys and writers and, yes, Mopantew Kids. It transcends time. The Clerk is part of the community.
From Canterbury Tales: The Clerk
For he hadde geten hym yet no benefice,
Ne was so worldly for to have office.
For hym was levere have at his beddes heed
Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,
Of Aristotle and his philosophie,
Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautrie.
But al be that he was a philosophre,
Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre;
But al that he myghte of his freendes hente,
On bookes and on lernynge he it spente,
And bisily gan for the soules preye
Of hem that yaf hym wherwith to scoleye.
Of studie took he moost cure and moost heede.Noght o word spak he moore than was neede, And that was seyd in forme and reverence, And short and quyk, and ful of hy sentence; Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche,310And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.
Clarinda Harriss is a professor emerita of English at Towson University. For more than four decades she has done several things dear to her heart, and continues to do them: publish BrickHouse Books, Inc., Maryland’s oldest literary press, and worked with prison writers. Her most recent book, THE WHITE RAIL (Halfmoon Editions, Atlanta, GA) , is a collection of short fiction, not her “real” genre, poetry. She delights in her two children and five grandchildren.