A Brutal Courage

I’m sure I’m not the first of my kind who, in times of professional self-doubt, always reached for that snippet of dialogue between Sir Thomas More and Richard Rich from the film version of A Man for All Seasons. More, the career administrator, and Rich, the unscrupulous climber, engage in a frank exchange on the waterfront grounds of the former’s estate. Rich wants a post at court; More asks if he’d ever considered being a teacher, suggesting that he might be a very good one. The idea still puzzles me—is it Rich’s seemingly childlike wonderment, as played by a very youthful John Hurt?—but in any case, the younger man demurs. “Who would know it?” he replies, and Paul Scofield’s More explains: “You, your pupils, your friends. God. Not a bad public, that.” Sure, the future martyr has no time for someone like Rich, and no, odds are the teaching appointment would not satisfy the would-be protégé’s ambitions. But that’s missing the point. The more I reflect on this scene, the more I suspect More is half-thinking about himself, about the life he might have had had he chosen the path of a teacher. Poignantly, given what we know about Rich’s character, it is as if he were advising a younger, absent, self.

A year ago this month, having just seen my daughter arrive safely in the world, having taken a break from this blog to undertake a second Master’s and trying to get it right this time, having at last chosen to embrace rather than run from the overwhelming evidence that my fate was to teach rather than administrate, my waterfront grounds were Coligny Beach in Hilton Head, and why not? The summer heat is strong but comforting as a warm bath. We are returning to our rented condo. I am carrying a bag of local shrimp in one hand and a watermelon under my arm. My wife is carrying our newborn in a sari-like wrap that engulfs everything but the head. My Russian mother-in-law is carrying a beach bag. This was not long before I was tracked down by my nonprofit and asked to become its Program Administrator. We had put ourselves out of reach. We would return from the beach, or a crab shack, or alligator spotting, put A down to nap, and I would immerse myself in discursive grammar or theories on the development of pre-adolescent bilinguals. At peace with my insight that running anything but my own classroom was not for me despite two years of fantasizing about it, knowing that a little more than a year from now I would emerge from another round of graduate studies a better informed (and better connected) language teacher. Content in the knowledge that back home, my not at all bad public was awaiting my return. I would stir a martini and practice being grateful. Not too many days after I had settled into this, they tracked me down. I reminded them that I was now the father of a two-month old and again in graduate school, and that I would need a lot of scaffolding (whatever that meant). It was too late to affect creative incompetence. But they pressed, and I said yes.

Looking back now on my awkward, abbreviated year of attempting to “run” programming for an educational organization with more memoranda of understanding than any one person should have been answerable for, I don’t think I did so badly. It wasn’t the end of the world as I knew it, not immediately, and not in the sense that would seem to be the case today, a year later, for anyone who has made a living via human-to-human interactions for the better part of a decade. I never pretended to know what I was doing. I said “I don’t know” a lot. I was disdainful not only of the reporting requirements expected of any federal or state grantee, but of many of the things they expected us to report that we were doing, which were directly or indirectly linked to vocational training. On the other hand, I did what I assumed my exalted—and soon to be obsolete—title of Director of Education licensed me to do. I made decisions. I made changes. Classes would meet three days a week instead of the minimum two. New students would no longer have to wait a month to begin learning—an attrition risk—but could begin attending preparatory workshops immediately after registration. An English language proficiency test that I had been trained to administer as an instructor but that had never been adopted because it was perceived as labor intensive (in fact, done correctly, it took less than fifteen minutes) would now give us an assessment appropriate for students more interested in improving their oral communication skills than showing they could read a classified ad. And beginning in March of this year, ESL students at an upper intermediate level and above could now attend the closest thing possible to an intensive English program and not have to pay for it. It never crossed my mind that I had not been hired for my ideas, but even if I had, I could not have known that the last and best of these would share its debut with Covid, budgetary spasms, a new ED.

The severance letter was without malice, the banker’s box light as a newborn. (At least they waited until the day after Father’s Day. A walked across a room for the first time!) But I sense a self-pitying must creeping in here, when what I really want is solace. Solace is to pity what companionship is to social distancing. Already, several weeks before descending with a banker’s box, my companion was Walker Percy and his Thomas More, the Dr. Tom More of Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome. This is not the Arts and Sciences Percy of the Will Barrett novels and the essays on language, The South, existentialism, and the disappointments of modern science. I have a pet theory that for all of Percy’s literary ambitions and achievement—that deep down, he wanted to write at least one good, or just good-but-for-the-grace-of-God, work of pulp. Pulp being to literature what excellent corn whiskey is to an ibrik of equally excellent Turkish coffee. The evidence is offhand, with recurring, if dismissive, references to Sidney Sheldon, Erle Stanley Gardner, Gone With the Wind, and so on, but unmistakable. I was never quite able to suspend disbelief as the Percy who once wrote that the “only literature of alienation is an alienated literature, that is, a bad art, which is no art at all” sent his carbine-toting, Early Times-sipping Dr. More in pursuit of a Black Power sniper in social-apocalyptic Louisiana on Independence Day. But I wanted to rediscover this novel (if I had ever in fact finished it) because I could never forget More’s always relevant opening question—“Has it happened at last?”—and because, a couple of months into the pandemic and less than one before I was cast adrift, I finally got around to Thanatos, probably the oldest unread liquor-box stowaway of my library over nearly twenty years of migration, and which I remembered being about an epidemic of some kind. Among the things furthest from my mind, epidemics/pandemics and apocalypses until recently probably figured near the bottom, along with banker’s boxes. This was, after all, supposed to be a year of first-time anniversaries with my daughter.

Has it happened at last? Deep down, did I always suspect that I shared Dr. More’s world view (if I could just get to know it better) and know that one day I would ask this question and it would be my question? Is this what 19th century novelists used to call a premonition? Not likely. Along with epidemics/pandemics and apocalypses, fatherhood and administrating must have come in below even them twenty years ago. All, of course, have now happened at last, and so far, this is what I have learned about them:

Epidemics/pandemics is an obtuse construction. Epidemics are like recessions: maybe you are unlucky or someone else is, but not both. In a pandemic, both of you being unlucky together may or may not in fact happen, but all of a sudden you can visualize it happening with remarkable clarity. Socioeconomic factors can buy you time, but the very fact that you have even become aware of socioeconomic factors is a key symptom. In A Journal of the Plague Year, Defoe describes “the Poor…[going] about their Employment, with a Sort of brutal Courage,” and I don’t know whether to be impressed or amused by the proliferation of Thank You Essential Workers signs in gentrified neighborhoods. There have been countless articles about Republicans going about their business unmasked to show how they define brutal Courage, but such signaling may itself indicate a kind of unconscious fatalism.

Apocalypses need not involve mass destruction, zombies, or the collapse of the electric grid, however long we have been rehearsing for these scenarios. Back in the late 90s when I fancied myself a freelance writer, a sympathetic mentor recommended The Gutenberg Elegies, in which Sven Birkerts argued that the rise of digital technology would lead to the death of literature, at least as the author and I had known it. I didn’t need convincing, though: I was already a highly self-aware nostalgist, not only for “literature,” but for prelapsarian assurances of any kind—competent bartenders, rail travel, the idea that I would make as good or better a living than my parents, even “nostalgia” itself. (Yes, 1970s nostalgia was an entirely different thing.) I resented the death of snail mail. The point is that apocalypse is an overburdened word. All it means, in Greek, is the end of an era, an “epoch lapse.” The sooner we accept this, the sooner we can understand that we’re all survivors, all old hands at the apocalypse thing. That doesn’t mean we have to like it. We will resist, and eventually we will grieve. Some of us will resist and lose our heads, like the original Thomas More. But most of us will find a way to split the difference between who we believe ourselves to be and what the times insist on making of us.

Ask a new dad about Fatherhood, or any new parent about Parenthood, and you’ll never hear the end of it. It could be no other way. On the other hand, as a new dad, I didn’t think the well-intentioned platitudes of others would end, either. The most common of these was the benignly cautionary “Your life will change forever.” I have to say this is unhelpful, because change has been a fact of life for me for so long that it does, in fact, seem to be the point of being alive. The fact of my daughter, however, is another matter altogether. With her coming into the world, the world itself has changed forever, not just for me but for all of those (born and unborn) who will know her and perhaps learn from her, and that is a much more important point.

On Administrating: Nobody wants to teach anymore. (I’m exaggerating, but bear with me.) Or at least, ask teachers these days what they dream of doing, and they will say, “What I really want to do is administrate.” I know this, because I was such a teacher. Teaching is exhausting. Teaching is poorly compensated. Teacher has two syllables; administrator has five. I suspect this is true not only in education itself, but in all disciplines and professions. Hence the rise of Learning Management Systems, the celebration of the Autonomous Learner. So more precisely, it isn’t so much that all or most teachers just want to become administrators, but that those who do stick it out in the system until a spot opens up—as it should be: self-selection is as close as the professions will ever come to democracy. The question is, why? Probably no testimonial is fully representative; a good example is Monica Jacobe’s essay in Inside Higher Ed several years ago. In Jacobe’s case, you have someone whose administrative experience actually preceded her becoming faculty, suggesting that administrating was a way to make the doctoral training ends meet, but I’m just speculating. Her point was that having worked in administration left her with “very little sense of what was going on in the wider university that didn’t directly impact my work or wasn’t in the student newspaper.” This reminds me of someone I worked with early on in my ill-fated Directorship, who may not have been the first person I ever heard use the term “looped in,” but who made it clear that the concept was very important to her. (She may have had a point, as she got her banker’s box only weeks after not being so looped.) My own reaction struck me, and I confess it now: I realized that I didn’t care about, much less seek, that kind of knowledge. Laurence Veysey wrote that the rise of administration in higher education was led by people with “that combination of luck and daring” associated with success in business. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the corporate world was the first to get out of the training and apprenticeship business once universities signaled they were willing to step into the breach.

“My father was, as I say, a type familiar in the South, not successful in life but an upholder of culture, lofty ideals, and the higher things,” recalls Percy’s tower-dwelling ascetic Father Smith in Thanatos, at one of the novel’s more compelling points. I wouldn’t want my daughter to grow up to be a tower ascetic, though that is up to her, but I would not mind if this is how she remembers me one day, sardonic as Percy is being here. And I do plan to stick around, if only long enough to walk a waterfront with her and give her sound advice, helping her imagine possibilities that may already be in her grasp.



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