My Former Student’s Daughter, And Me

My Former Student’s Daughter, And Me

Sanford Pinsker

If you’re looking forward to a steamy confession about an aging professor and an 18-year-old, one made all the steamier because the woman in question is the daughter of a former student, it’s probably best to tell you, right off the blocks, that that’s not the story I plan to unfold. Rather, this is a case where I found myself so conflicted that there seemed no easy way to say just what I was feeling. On occasions such as this one, I often tell my students, only you know, really know, what you want to say when it takes the form of paragraphs, one marching after the other toward that elusive thing called human truth.

For the sake of convenience, let’s agree to call my former student Phil. I first met him when he showed up in an Introduction to Literature class I gave during the early 1970s. Literary theory had not yet killed off the New Criticism, so what we did was “close read” a number of poems and short stories, a play, and a novel. Standard fare, I suppose, although I soon learned that Phil wasn’t the standard student. He probably had all the usual adjustment troubles–getting along with new roommates, growing accustomed to dormitory food, and most of all, worrying about the grades he’d get on the longer, more difficult academic assignments people had warned him about back in high school–but Phil worried in ways that set him apart from his classmates.

I could see this when about two weeks into the semester the syllabus took us to Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers.” In this story, a young Nick Adams learns that some Chicago gangsters are planning to “bump off’ Ole Andreson, an ex-fighter who had double-crossed the mob. Nick rushes over to the boarding house where Ole lives and tries to warn him of the impending fate, but Ole, to Nick’s surprise, simply turns his face toward the wall and stoically accepts the death that awaits him.

Nick, however, cannot. There must be something that Ole can do (perhaps make a deal with his potential killers), or that the police can do (Nick offers to call the equivalent of 911), or even that Nick himself might do. The tight-lipped Ole rejects each suggestion, and Nick is left with his sense of innocence badly shaken. I dutifully led the class to ways of seeing how such initiation stories work, and in large measure I thought I had been successful. That is, until one student–Phil, of course–began pressing me to come up with alternatives, some way to save the doomed Ole that neither Hemingway’s story nor our class discussion had yet hit on. Finally–thankfully–the academic hour slid to its 50-minute close and I told the class that we would take up Katherine-Mansfield’s “The Garden Party” next time. At which point Phil fairly exploded: “How can we go on, he insisted, “when I haven’t understood this story yet?”

To his credit, Phil not only brought the same intensity to other classes that semester, but also became an English major in the bargain; and while na[ddot{i}]ve questions took a more sophisticated turn over the years, it is probably fair to say that Phil was never entirely comfortable with literary visions that conceded too much–or too easily–to death. Eventually he became a doctor and now makes the business of saving lives (though not Ole’s) the work of his life.

Over the years we exchanged occasional letters, so I was familiar with the general trajectory of his years after college, but it was only at a homecoming a few years later that I learned just how lifesaving a liberal education can, in fact, be. When his first wife, a troubled young woman ravaged by alcohol and drugs, committed suicide (she literally died in his arms, with shivery resonances to the story he had resisted so many years ago), Phil told me that it took every bit of his undergraduate education to get him through this very dark patch. What the required readings, the discussions, and the term papers added up to was, in his words, “an intellectual scaffolding,” one that helped to prop him up, and later to sustain him. One is not likely to think of what we teach in quite this way–and this is especially true if we rely on the current undergraduate population to validate the things we do.

Nor did Phil’s conversation stop there. Soon we were talking about the Conrad seminar he took with me, and how resonances from “Heart of Darkness” seemed to be eerily applicable as the darkness rolled over his own life. “I wrote an ‘A’ paper on Lord Jim,” he reminded me (and indeed he had), but he went on to say, “I had only the vaguest notion of what Stein meant when he talked about submitting yourself to the destructive element. Now, I think I know, or at least I have a richer glimmer of what he had in mind.” Our unofficial seminar on Conrad spread over a long dinner without ending in a grade, much less in a mark on a transcript. The latter are features of college life that make it, well, college life. Postgraduate reality is quite another matter. There, an education either adds up to something, or it doesn’t. “C” grades simply don’t exist.

I was reminded of all this when Phil rang me up the other night. He would, he told me, be making another campus visit in a few weeks, but this time to squire his daughter around the campus. He clearly wanted her to enroll and figured that having her sit in on one of my classes would, in his words, “clinch the deal.” I was flattered, although I don’t have the foggiest idea if she shares his certainty about the college of her dreams.

At this point the plot, as bad novelists like to put it, thickens–because at the same time I was thinking about Phil, I also found myself recalling a senior professor who kept insisting that it was “time to bail” when the children of his former students drew a bead on his classroom. At the time I thought his bluster was just that, but I was wrong. Whatever these parents and children might be thinking, it meant, at least to him, one thing: that he was, well, old, and that it was high time to pack it in. I never thought I’d be wiggling my toes in his slippers, but here I am, with the daughter of a former student about to waltz herself into my classroom.

And to muddy the waters even more, I wonder if the century she will live in (as I will not) really needs another generation of slow, painstaking readers. Even in her dad’s day, literature was a hard sell. Now, stories seem as outmoded as manual typewriters and just as old-fashioned. How can they possibly compete with rap videos and Nintendo? Some deep thinkers about higher education have even suggested that the sort of college campus that Phil and his daughter plan to stroll across is equally endangered. In their new, high-tech model of higher education, students will glue their eyes to a home monitor and double-click their way to a more efficient and far cheaper education.

I know that this dreary scenario won’t be the case for Phil’s daughter (even in cyberspace change doesn’t happen this fast), but it very well might be how it is for her children. I hope not, but the prospect is certainly worth chewing over. Moreover, let me (gently) suggest that the best place to start, for Phil’s daughter, indeed, for anybody’s son or daughter, is with a specific poem or story, novel or play. It doesn’t have to be Hemingway’s “The Killers,” but it would be something, really something, if that’s the story that joined Phil, his daughter, and me together next fall.

Sanford Pinsker is Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin and Marshall College.

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