He was ready to admit to himself that he had not been a good teacher. Always, from the time he had fumbled through his first classes of freshman English, he had been aware of the gulf that lay between what he felt for his subject and what he delivered in the classroom. He had hoped that time and experience would repair the gulf; but they had not done so. Those things that he held most deeply were most profoundly betrayed when he spoke of them to his classes; what was most alive withered in his words; and what moved him most became cold in its utterance. And the consciousness of his inadequacy distressed him so greatly that the sense of it grew habitual, as much a part of him as the stoop of his shoulders.
The quiet struggle of English professor William Stoner is a familiar one. Those things we hold most dear most defy communication. The eponymous central character in John Williams’ 1965 novel Stoner (New York Review Books) loves literature, but how does he transfer that love, share it, or even simply demonstrate it to his students?
I’m probably getting to the right age for Stoner—a quiet novel about a quiet life in which the reader is forced along with the character to assess the big “so what?” These passages capture that so what. So what affect do you have on those around you?
I remember my junior high school English teacher trying to share with us his love of poetry. He extended a shaky hand. “Poetry does this to me,” he said. We were incredulous, perhaps a little disturbed. He may have shed tears. Certainly there was his red bandana handkerchief.
Watching him didn’t make me run out for a volume of verse, but nearly three and a half decades later, here I am writing about it. It has had some effect.
Stoner, too, eventually lets go a little, has some effect.
Now and then he became so caught by his enthusiasm that he stuttered, gesticulated, and ignored the lecture notes that usually guided his talks. At first he was disturbed by his outbursts, as if he presumed too familiarly upon his subject, and he apologized to his students; but when they began coming up to him after class, and when in their papers they began to show hints of imagination and the revelation of tentative love, he was encouraged to do what he had never been taught to do. The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words in the blackest and coldest print–the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly.
Perhaps that’s the real example. Whatever you’re passionate about, be it. It doesn’t matter if no one else gets it. They will get the fact that you’re alive in it–whatever it is–that it’s worth getting excited over.
I think books are worth getting excited over. They’re tools for helping us to live our lives. But whatever tools you use, feel free to share them, share them widely and unabashedly, no matter how awkwardly you’re sure to do it. ★