In Maine life and in books, I love the big house full of people, or a small town community, a neighborhood full of people. Or it might be a school. In books I’m immersed in the familial, communal life of characters. When you get enough people together there’s always something going on. Character interiority, while refreshingly necessary, is but one aspect of fictive or nonfiction communal life. Community roles are important to me in creating characters and place. Every bunch is different, and its culture, whether familiar or unique, is lived out in these roles and made live.
I’m not quite through Mr. Harvey’s book, but trust my reading to report on Listen To Your Kids, by Thomas Harvey, a friend of R.. Mr. Harvey taught English at a local Maine high school and elsewhere in New England. He was also a small-town newspaper editor in northern Maine. His subtitle is Solutions for Distraught Teachers and Parents, and he is hopeful of both solutions and change. Reading this book gives me the idea that much as he loves English—evident in his numerous quotations of literary and historic aphorisms—he loves kids. He loves his former vocation of teaching them. This is one thoughtful impassioned human being. And he is old now, not far from being fully formed: a mature human being in the righteous sense of the word.
Harvey’s classroom experience was also full of missives, the personal journals written by his pupils, sharing their deeps and shallows—but never the mundane minutia of their days. Part of the assignment—leave out the “went to the movies and had pizza”—leave in feelings, experiences, beliefs. An appendix is filled with thoughtful letters from former students.
CS Lewis wrote to university students in his “Our English syllabus,” saying that an education was meant to come before college. Education was of primary importance for all schooling before undergraduate studies. It’s aim was to fit the individual for life. College was to focus the student on his or her subject. Elementary, middle school and high school (as we know them in the U.S.) are meant to form the human being. In his methods of teaching high school English, and as his essays, quotations and reminiscence reveal, the author of LISTEN TO YOUR KIDS, has the fruitful concept of education deeply in mind.
I was very taken with it because Mr. Harvey’s approach was big on looseness, experimentation and demonstration, coupled with values and balance. He often taught kids outside classroom walls, where they gained understanding through a combination of bodily action and conversation, and the back-and-forth of question and answer. One example was their studies of Lord Of The Flies, in which he had kids divided into groups to assess how class would be run by each group over the next few days.
Another time they were reading Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, who pretended blackness down to the coloring of his skin in the prejudiced and resistant southern USA of the 1960s. Again kids were divided, this time to pretend the parts of oppressed and oppressor in order to understand what it was like during civil rights struggles. This demonstration was in a white class, part of the all white student body extant in this part of Maine. Until this classroom theatre happened, the kids were not getting the book by Griffin. Again—in journalism class—his students were rejecting the extra effort of corroborating sources. One day he was called out just at the bell and then came back into the classroom to tell them about the unexpected death of a beloved pop star… which news the kids themselves then spread throughout the school. Next day they came to him indignant, outraged that he had lied to them. “Why did you do that?!” Then he reminded them.
I imagine that CS Lewis, author also of THE ABOLITION OF MAN* which addresses education, might say that Mr. Harvey was fitted for the job, not by specialized learning as by the requisite education: How to be a human being. How to develop over the formative years, how to be taught by other mature beings and become one himself.
It’s tricky being human. Being human’s not like following a set of full-proof instructions. We may think we’ve got the manual for it—in fact I consider Mr. Harvey’s book to be a sort of creative manual. Refreshingly, it includes the blunders and errors of the trial. I wrote in another essay on the subject of teaching:
When the crunch comes, getting it right can be more of a collision, a near-miss, complete stall, a stranding—instead of truly getting it right. You want it to work, you want to help the kid. You want to be effective in the lives of others under your stewardship. And maybe you are also aiming for a festival with your students, everyone having fun, getting their parts right, and with communal celebration abounding—in the auditorium, the classroom, halls, the ballfield outside the school’s doors.
This is the experience I read about in Mr. Harvey’s book.
His subtitle, Solutions for Distraught Teachers and Parents, places emphasis on change. The chapter entitled “Final Thoughts” begins with an ellipsis:
….because I need to go outside to play. But before I do I want to leave you with a final thought or two or three. It is not enough for a scattered few teachers, parents and administrators to climb aboard the change express. If education is truly to serve our nation’s twenty-first-century needs, society at large must make a leap-of-faith.
Will we accept his challenge?
Listen to your kids.