Two views of the one room schoolhouse on the LBJ Ranch near Fredricksburg, Texas
At the tender age of 15, I entered the classroom of Arthur Bottaro with fear and trembling. He was short, imposing, intense, demanding and highly intelligent. Mr. Bottaro taught 11th grade Honors English at Glendale High School, and he was perhaps the single most important teacher in my life.
In his class, we were expected to write weekly book reviews and essays and we were to type them on ditto paper. Please remember that I went to high school in the dark ages, before either Xerox or mimeograph machines. I went to school in the era of carbon paper - and dittos. A ditto master consisted of two parts - a front sheet of specially coated typing paper and a back sheet, laden with purple ink. The letters typed on the top sheet would pick up the ink from the back sheet and then the type-covered master would be attached to a drum that was hand-cranked to produce copies from its inked back side.
And why did we have to reproduce our work? Because copies of each and every written assignment were made and distributed to every member of the class. Then we proceeded to rip each others' work to pieces, under the studious, challenging glare of our highly dramatic and talented teacher. I was scared to death about 90% of the time - but that year-long experience is the crucible in which I learned to write clearly, succinctly, honestly and reasonably well.
I thought a lot about Mr. B as I read chapters 3-6 of David Brooks' fascinating book, "The Social Animal," the most recent selection of the Book Club at The High Calling website. This week's assignment takes us through the development of our lead character, Harold, by looking at how the human brain grows, changes and expands from infancy through high school.
From the amazingly high rate of synapses formed during the first three years of life (called synaptogenesis):
"If you want to get a sense of the number of potential connections between the cells in Harold's brain, contemplate this: a mere 60 neurons are capable of making 10(to the 81st power) possible connections with each other. (That's 1 with 81 zeroes after it.) The number of particles in the known universe is about one-tenth of this number."
to the entirely unique pattern those synapses take in each one of our brains, and how repetition forms our "neural networks," which:
"...embody our experiences and in turn guide future action. They contain the unique way each of us carries himself in the world, the way we walk, talk, and react. They are the grooves down which our behavior flows. A brain is a record of a life. The networks of neural connections are the physical manifestation of your habits, personality, and predilections. You are the spiritual entity that emerges out of the material networks in your head."
Just as the ancient Hebrews believed, we are creatures who are all of a piece - head/heart/body/mind/spirit. And though Brooks, in his introduction, indicated that he would not be delving into the spiritual arena in this volume, he does not seem to be able to help himself. We are connected - to the various parts of ourselves - and to each other.
As I hoped he might, Brooks does look at how story-telling is an important part of intellectual and emotional development, noting that many of the stories we imagine in childhood carry over into adulthood, at least in terms of their tone, and in the way we think about life. An interesting contrast was made between 'paradigmatic thinking,' (which is "structured by logic and analysis") and 'mythic mode,' (which contains "another dimension...the dimension of good and evil, sacred and profane. This mythic mode helps people not only tell a story, but make sense of the emotions and moral sensations aroused by the story.") This distinction just may help me understand why my brother and I see the world so differently!
The sections in chapter 5 on parenting were deeply encouraging, underlining that good parenting does not require a graduate degree in psychology but rather depends on connections established early in life and continued at each stage of development. And it depends upon our modeling both resilience and problem-solving. The hackneyed phrase about giving our children both 'roots and wings' seems to have been proven in the social laboratories of our finest universities.
And the last few pages of that chapter reminded us with a powerful, storied example of how 'fearfully and wonderfully' we are made, with layer after layer of complexity that we cannot often see, much less navigate with success. "This is why," Brooks writes, "all biographies are inadequate; they can never capture the inner currents."
But it was in Chapter 6, where we are invited into Harold's high school experience, that we delve most deeply into the powerful impact a courageous and dedicated teacher can have on adolescents. From his analysis of cliques and the intricacy of the socialization process, Brooks underscores the primacy of reading social cues correctly. Our hero possesses supreme skills in the social arena. But in the classroom? He is lost at sea.
Until he encounters Ms. Taylor, a teacher with powerful insights into how the adolescent brain is structured. She also possesses a grand idea for matching students with their particular passion for learning. And here is where Mr. Brooks' writing and research began to resonate with me at a very deep level.
"Of course, Ms. Taylor wanted to impart knowledge, the sort of stuff that shows up on tests But within weeks, students forget 90 percent of the knowledge they learn in class anyway. The only point of being a teacher is to do more than impart facts; it's to shape the way students perceive the world, to help a student absorb the rules of a discipline. The teachers who do that get remembered. She didn't so much teach them as apprentice them...She forced them to make mistakes. The pain of getting things wrong and the effort required to overcome error creates an emotional experience that helps burn things into the mind. She tried to get students to interrogate their own unconscious opinions...She also forced them to work...She pushed. She was willing to be hated. Ms. Taylor's goal was to turn her students into autodidacts. She hoped to give her students a taste of the emotional and sensual pleasure discovery brings - the jolt of pleasure you get when you work hard, suffer a bit, and then something clicks. She hoped her students would become addicted to this process. They would become, thanks to her, self-teachers for the rest of their days."
And this, of course, is the place where I wrote Mr. B's name in the margin of my book. For in addition to a long list of books, we also talked about ideas; we particularly talked about how ideas IN books can change the world. We acted out scenes from Shakespeare and Wilder; we enjoyed earnest discussions about controversial reading material; we learned to take a book apart, by theme/characters/plot and then to put it back together again. We were encouraged, even demanded "to think on paper," as he used to say. Mr. B. was largely responsible for any academic success I enjoyed at UCLA and many years later, at Fuller Theological Seminary. Because Mr. B. gave me permission - and provided the expertise - to read anything and everything on multiple levels at once: analytically, emotionally, intellectually and experientially. And then he taught me how to write about it with clarity and occasionally, on a really good day, to write about it with grace.
He died of a heart attack, very suddenly, about a dozen years after I graduated, when he was about 17 years younger than I am now. And I never went back to say 'thank-you.' So tonight I will say it:
"Thank you, Mr. B., for your careful attention to each one of us and your unique teaching style with all of us together. Teachers like you are a gift to the world and I am forever grateful that you were a teacher of mine."