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One Good Teacher

  • DAVID LYLE JEFFREY

Why I'll never forget Pop Shaver as long as I live.


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Almost everyone can remember a teacher who wasn't insufferable.  Maybe, if you were lucky, you even had one who made a difference.  A few of us are thankful for a teacher who turned our lives around.  In my case it was Bernard Shaver — "Pop" Shaver as he was universally known outside of class — a grade-eight teacher whose specialty at Glashan Public School was unruly boys, lads with a penchant for too frequently exhibiting a surfeit of testosterone.  All 36 of us in his 1952–1953 class came trailing a litter of misdemeanor citations; neither our previous schools nor our parents had proven sufficient for our correction.  We were segregated from the girls our age (mostly 12 and 13) for good reasons.  I don't remember the name of their teacher, or the name of the one who taught the "normal" boys, either.  But I'll never forget Pop Shaver as long as I live.

He was already in his sixties, of middle height but with large, strong, bony hands.  His face was creased, his nose also large, and there was a sparkle in his eyes and sometimes fire.  Yet he had a wonderful beaming smile that could as suddenly light up the classroom as his frown could shut it down; he had a gravelly voice that made him seem forever hoarse, as if he had once had a cold he never quite got over, but it was a voice you wanted to listen to — carefully.  One of the students, a chap named Rich Little, could mimic Pop well enough that he would scare and scatter us when we were rolling dice for money in the school basement — so good was he, in fact, that one time it really was Pop calling down the stairs, and I can attest that, believing it was just Rich, we did not scatter fast enough.  That was not such a good day.

Pop taught us mathematics and English.  We had classes in woodworking and metalwork to which we went twice weekly, and a class in music appreciation on Fridays.  I remember the two shop teachers, Mr. Fraser and Mr. Castleman, but not the name of the music teacher, who was a bit of a twit and who, because I disliked opera, made me do my term paper on Puccini's Madame Butterfly.  Social studies, with the eminently distractible Mrs. MacDonald, we had gotten out of the way back in grade seven, so the only other non-Shaver class besides Phys Ed was French, for which an intern-instructor from the Normal School came to us, also twice a week. 

What this meant in sum is that from 8 to 11 a.m., before our one-hour "other" classes, five days a week, Pop Shaver taught us math.  He worked us hard, and we got good at it, much better than we knew until Pop came to class with first one, then two, then three of our tests, which a friend of his had administered at Lisgar Collegiate to the graduation class, five years our senior.  (We had, by Christmas, significantly better scores.) The entirety of every afternoon was reserved for English.

A Man for Text & Context

It would not be too much to say, in my case, that these afternoons utterly transformed my life.  I had been reading adult books avidly on my own for three or four years — Dickens, Scott, Eliot, de Maupassant, Hugo, and others.  But I had never before had the experience of thoughtful, penetrating conversation about such books, or of questions that made you delve far more deeply into their thought.  Pop was not just a sharp mathematician, but also a man of the text; as I can better see now, he was an acute reader with a prodigious memory, a supple imagination, and critical acumen.  But he was also a man for contexts; he would tell us fascinating things about an author's life and times, historical events that swept over the author's horizon and still cast shadows on our own.  He had a fine ear for irony, such as most twelve-year-old boys do not, and he would draw it out for us, often just by reading aloud brilliantly until he saw our lights come on.  Then he would laugh, and exclaim, "Isn't it marvelous, lads?" We came to agree, then to anticipate.

He had a fine ear for irony, such as most twelve-year-old boys do not, and he would draw it out for us, often just by reading aloud brilliantly until he saw our lights come on.

Not in the least afraid of morality, he would arrange texts so that in their succession in his syllabus (which we never got except as he announced it weekly) the connections would gradually dawn on us, setting him up for a deeper but pithy lesson.  Thus, in the autumn we read (and learned to act out the parts of) Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.  The cruelty of Shylock in that play is overmatched by Portia's mercy, you may remember, but not many came to sympathize with Shylock. 

When in February we came to Ivanhoe, however, something different happened.  The wounded Ivanhoe's life is saved by Isaac the Jew and his beautiful daughter Rebecca, who nurses him back to health.  When, at the denouement, Ivanhoe is wedded to Rowena, as destiny demands, and Isaac and Rebecca sail to Granada to rejoin the Sephardic community, some of us were a bit disappointed.  "How many of you were hoping he would marry Rebecca?" Some of us raised our hands.  "Me too," he said with a smile and a wink.  We weren't just plodding through texts.

We didn't immediately realize, of course, just how unusual our experience was.  All we knew is that for the first time in our lives we weren't bored to death by school, and that when Pop was teaching he had our full attention.  One day two young men appeared at the classroom door.  Just as Pop went to greet them a message came from the principal's office that he was wanted on the phone, so he asked the young men to wait in the class till he returned.  "Boys," he said to us, "these fellows are former students from this class who are now studying for their degrees at Cambridge, in England."  He introduced them by name, and left. 

One of the boys came in and sat at his desk (Pop almost never sat there — he always taught standing or moving about), the other leaned with his rear on the top of the desk, facing us, and said, "I hope you little thugs know what you've got here; maybe the best teacher in the world."  The other said, "Without this man we'd be working in a lumberyard or maybe in jail.  He changed us.  We just came back to thank him."  For five minutes they let us ask questions about university life and about Cambridge.  I don't think the idea of university had crossed many of our minds before — certainly not mine.  Then Pop suddenly came back, cheerily asked the two some questions of his own, and with a pat on their shoulders saw them out the door.  "Alright, boys, now for us it's back to work."

Teaching the Fear of the Lord

Pop's manner of discipline — the charism of his character and the awe he inspired without much raising his voice — were absent, of course, when he was not in the room.  This was particularly so during our instruction in French, which at the beginning of my year was provided by a rather pretty but nervous Normal School student intern who came to our room twice a week.  Pop would then leave her to it, and take a break.  We were not only lacking in comparable awe for this young apprentice; it would be fair to say that in her nervousness and good looks she brought out the worst in us.  There was much twittering behind her back whenever she turned to write out a conjugation on the blackboard.  Which was often, as she clearly did not much like making eye contact with a room full of rascals such as we were.

As was my wont, I sat at the back of the room, in the middle, and one day, when she seemed particularly distracted, I am ashamed to say that I threw a small rubber eraser her way.  It bounced off the blackboard and hit her on the shoulder; she immediately burst into tears and fled the room.  In a minute the door opened again and Pop strode in.  In less time than it takes me to tell it, he said, "Alright, everybody on their feet.  Now, those who did not see this, sit down."  Half the class, those to the front, sat.  "Now everybody who did not do this, sit down."  And there I was, standing alone.  "Jeffrey, come with me."  It was that quick.  The strap was not more painful than my shame.

"I loved that man so much that I was more than anything afraid to disappoint him."

Pop had a concern for our developing a sense of proper courtesy toward women.  He strongly supported our being taught to dance with girls, at some special Phys Ed classes.  And he went out at recess with us to the rink, and taught us how to skate with girls, to Viennese waltzes and other such music.  I was very reluctant.  "Here, Jeffrey, you stand right here beside Miss Bell.  Now hold her left hand with yours, and put your right hand on the small of her back.  Now both of you skate to the music."  At first I was mortified; later, of course, I came to appreciate that he was teaching us the decorum appropriate to being young men of a better caliber than might have been foreseen.

Pop reinforced all this by teaching — and getting us to memorize — many poetic passages from the Old Testament, something no public school teacher today would be permitted to do.  Psalms 1, 50, and 100 and Ecclesiastes 12 were all on the spring term memorization and recitation schedule.  I remember particularly the Ecclesiastes, "Remember now thy creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, 'I have no pleasure in them.'" He led us through that text with great care, asking many questions.  "What do you think it means, boys, when it says 'and all the daughters of song are brought low; they are afraid also of what is high'?" That was quite a discussion — a class such as I have scarcely been able to match in fifty years of my own teaching.

Many years later, the parish priest who would marry my wife and me told me quietly, "I had Pop Shaver just four years before you.  He, more than anyone in seminary, taught me the meaning of the 'fear of the Lord.'" I laughed.  Father Pat had been a rowdy, so I expected a funny tale, but no: "I loved that man so much that I was more than anything afraid to disappoint him."  After a few months in his class, though with much less theological insight than Fr. Pat, I'd say that pretty much all of us felt the same way.

Friday Recitation

One thing that set Friday afternoons apart for us was recitation.  Each week we were given a poem to memorize.  At first they were shorter poems, such as Keats's sonnet, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer."  Pop would work through the poem for us, give us background information (we were astonished that the excitement of an explorer first glimpsing the Pacific Ocean could be compared to a reader's discovery of a translation of a Greek text), and then he would say, "Alright boys, that's for next Friday."  We never knew who would be called upon to recite, just that it would be six of us, chosen at random.  The issue was not whether or not you had the poem memorized (God help you if you didn't), but whether you could show, by your recitation, that you really understood it.  Pop would make comments on the recitations overall, have a suggestion, then an admonition, and then assign the next poem.

As the weeks went on, the poems became noticeably longer: Tennyson's "Ulysses," Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," Coleridge's "Ode to Tranquility," and then "Kubla Khan."  By then, it was early November, and I remember being hard-pressed to show I really understood "Kubla Khan."  But then came the mimeographed copy of our next assignment — more than one hundred lines from Byron's "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage."  Four pages. 

An audible groan was emitted by several voices.  I stress that such utterances were not normally tolerated in Pop Shaver's class, and well we knew it.  But we were staggered by the length of this assignment.  Pop just raised his eyebrow at us, stood silent for a minute, and then, in a total departure from his usual drill, offered no context whatsoever for the poem.  Instead, he walked over to the window, and laid his hand on the frame.  Outside it was raining — I can see it in my mind as if it were yesterday.  He paused, then simply began to recite:

There was a sound of revelry by night,
And Belgium's capital had gathered then 
Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men.
A thousand hearts beat happily; and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again,
And all went merry as a marriage bell,
But hush! hark! A deep sound strikes like a -rising knell!

Did ye not hear it? — No, 'twas but the wind,
Or the car rattling o'er the stony street;
On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn when youth and pleasure meet
To chase the glowing hours with flying feet. . . .

We were mesmerized by the power of his recitation, slow, measured, catching the rhythm of Byron's verse perfectly without overdoing it (as now I know).  The opening roar of the cannons was real enough for us to feel the alarm:

Within a windowed niche of that high hall
Sate Brunswick's fated chieftain; he did hear
That sound the first amidst the festival,
And caught its tone with death's prophetic ear;
And when they smiled because he deemed it near,
His heart more truly knew that peal too well
Which stretched his father on a bloody bier
And roused the vengeance blood alone could quell:
He rushed into the field, and foremost fighting, fell.

As we gathered our binders, we avoided eye contact with each other, for there was hardly a dry eye in the place.

For boys our age, just seven years after the end of World War II, in which most of our fathers had fought, the story line was gripping.  Byron goes on to describe in sharp detail the "sudden partings, such as press / The life from out young hearts," the mustering squadrons and the heavy thunder of advancing enemy artillery, the skirl and scree of the bagpipes, as "Wild and high the 'Camerons gathering' rose, / The war-note of Lochiel."  But then, in a masterly shift in tone, Byron touches upon the young troops themselves, heading out at dawn to the field.

And Ardennes waves above them her green leaves,
Dewy with Nature's tear-drops, as they pass,
Grieving, if aught inanimate e'er grieves,
Over the unreturning brave, — alas!
Ere evening to be trodden like the grass
Which now beneath them, but above shall grow
In its next verdure, when this fiery mass
Of living valour, rolling on the foe,
And burning with high hope, shall moulder cold and low.

He went on through the gory stanzas, past the reference to Psalm 90, in which "the Psalmist numbered out the years of man."  And when he had finished, he paused a good minute in silence, and then turned to us and just said, "Friday, boys.  Class dismissed."  As we gathered our binders, we avoided eye contact with each other, for there was hardly a dry eye in the place.  Some thugs.  When the next Friday came, we were all wearing our five-cent -plastic red poppies, as was Pop; it was November 11, and still raining.  Even before the first boy was called up to recite, we had gotten the message.

None Like Him

Occasionally, in later life, boys from our class would chance to meet, and on recognition, spontaneously we'd exclaim together, "There was a sound of revelry by night!" And like as not, we'd then look for a pub, there to reminisce about Pop Shaver.  None of us, that I know of, has ever had a teacher like unto him.  For us he was, simply, the best teacher in the world.

Today, of course, he wouldn't be permitted to do most of what he did so well — in fact, he might not be permitted to teach at all in a public school.  In an age that has reduced expectations to the infantilism of the Common Core, that indeed seeks to deal palliatively rather than reconstructively with socially and emotionally challenged kids, he might well be regarded by progressive educationists as positively dangerous. 

Yet to all such prejudices I would offer a modest rejoinder: Why not permit an experiment?  If you can find such a teacher, even if one in a hundred, permit him or her to design a curriculum that will challenge kids and move them out of and beyond their cultural norms.  Let that good teacher freely teach to his students' full potential.  Then, every five years for the next two decades, use those students as a control group when assessing the success of the general population.  I am willing to wager that the results might encourage us to give more attention to what makes for a good teacher, and less to rigid method and a curriculum whose purpose is mere social paradigm. 

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Acknowledgement

jeffreyDavid Lyle Jeffrey, "One Good Teacher." Touchstone (September/October 2017).

Reprinted with permission of Touchstone and the author, David Lyle Jeffrey.

The Author

jeffrey3jeffrey2David Lyle Jeffrey is Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities at Baylor University and Guest Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Peking University. He is known as a medievalist and scholar of the biblical tradition in Western Literature and art. David Lyle Jeffrey is the author of In the Beauty of Holiness: Art and the Bible in Western CultureLuke: a Theological Commentary and Christianity and Literature: Philosophical Foundations and Critical Practice

Copyright © 2017 Touchstone
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