Shooting stars and drinking hemlock

What makes sense after 31 years of teaching college?

By David Alford
Published September 3, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Socrates ended his teaching career by drinking hemlock.
Nietzsche wandered away from his and then fell into delirium. Bad
company. But I don't seem to be hounded, particularly, by demons
external or internal. The tide went out on my subversive radicalism
years ago; I haven't been a threat to anybody. And self-doubt is
endemic to the profession, my case being no more terminal than the
next bloke's. So the drama of the last year of my 31-year teaching
career will have to lie in something less than an apocalypse.

I'm 61, teaching philosophy and humanities at Columbia College
in the California mountains. One of my best students last year asked
me why I was considering quitting when I was "at the top of my game."
I mentioned my sadness watching Muhammad Ali fight Leon Spinks, and
he said, reasonably, that there are no punks waiting in the shadows
for teachers. True, but maybe 31 years of anything, even something as sublime as teaching,
is enough. Besides, I might not be down on one knee from an
undeflected jab to the face, but my inability to counterpunch fast
enough leads to its own modest form of humiliation in the classroom.

The year begins next Monday, and my stomach rumbles tonight
and my throat aches as I swallow. The distant future, what
to do with an extraordinary amount of unscheduled time, is very clear. But how to
perform this last year, whether to make it a celebratory summing up
or a gentle, anonymous fading out, isn't. To coast or not to coast, that is
the question. But no, that is not really the question. As always,
the question is what to teach, which means, what to bother to teach
out of all there is. And, does any of it make any difference?

I packed a book to the mandatory pre-school meeting that
took place today in a jammed little windowless bunkerlike room under
the basketball dome, knowing that I would not be paying attention to
the speeches. I've avoided these rituals for three years, using up
various "personal necessity" days. I should have avoided this one.
Capt. Smedes of the Modesto Police Department presented a workshop
for the entire faculty and staff on violence, complete with a
demonstration of self-defense techniques. The kicker was his
illustrated lecture on "key things to remember," with an overhead
projector, which he presented like a salesman trying to cinch a deal.
Capt. Smedes was pushing "Relaxed Awareness," something he
described as being "quite different from paranoia." He was not very
relaxed in his presentation, though he was probably very aware. Some
guy in the back said he couldn't see the screen, so Smedes cranked up
the picture until all there was on the screen was AXED AWA, until he
backed it off. Nobody in the audience laughed.

Jesus, I thought. The police are teaching Buddhism. I can
leave that out of the course outline. One of my buddies on the
faculty, a physicist, nudged me and gestured toward the door, so we
crept out into the morning light. My friend, a fervent student of
abstract theory, immediately began summarizing "The
Elegant Universe," which apparently contained the idea that
everything in the universe consists of "little twists." I soon
wondered what kind of little twist my feeling of fatigue was.
According to the theory, nothing can be said about phenomena below a
certain order of magnitude. We both agreed that we should try
teaching a course about very small stuff and remain silent the whole

Oh my. I got rid of Dennis and walked up the hill to my
office, fighting nausea and dizzyness. Along the way I ran into Rod,
the jazz teacher, and what appeared to be his latest paramour, a tall,
gorgeous brunet. She was hanging onto every nuance of his being,
worshipfully, as usual. He must blow a lot more than his sax, I
thought, with the same mixture of resentment and awe I always have
around the guy.

When I got to my office, I dusted the cobwebs off the chair,
pushed a stack of ancient papers toward the wastebasket and picked
up the book I had been carrying around all morning. It was "Genesis:
The Beginning of Desire" by Avivah Zornberg, the Israeli scholar. I
opened it up. I had underlined a passage toward the end of the
book. It said something about the inevitability of human beings
needing to balance "meaning and mystery." We have to know things and
we have to not know things. That's just great. But what the hell do
we have to know and what do we have to not know?

I shut my office, drove home, took a long bike ride. At
night, a bunch of friends and family members sat outside on the deck
of my niece's house staring up at the August sky waiting for the
meteor shower. None of us knew the names of the constellations.

What does it mean to begin the last year of a decades-long
career? What happened to those thousands of students? I even married
one, and yet I don't know what happened to her either. And what happened to
me? Suddenly my throat constricts as I feel tears come. Is this all
ineffable, a complete mystery? Well, the guy said "relaxed
awareness." Maybe I'll try it. Maybe it'll work.

David Alford

David Alford lives and works on a ranch in the Sierras, near the town of Avery, CA.

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