Even in the large, clamorous public high school I attended, the Man With the Beard drew stares. Whether or not you knew his name, or that he taught European History, you recognized the Rasputin-like nest from down the crowded corridors. The beard was brown and long and stuck out in all directions. Rumor had it he’d started growing it in protest against a government policy he hated and had sworn not to shave until it was overturned.
From the start of Mr. M’s advanced-placement class, it was clear that his definition of teaching would be different from any I’d encountered up to that point. One day, after the bell had rung and we’d taken our seats, Mr. M simply stood before us:
“I’m blind, I’m deaf, I have no sense of smell or taste.”
He made these pronouncements with no explanation of how they related to the textbooks on our desks. “Prove to me that you exist,” he said.
For the next 42 minutes, that’s what we endeavored to do, our arguments ranging from the logical to the irritable to the absurd. From his position at the front of the room, Mr. M shot down our proofs or pointed out where they needed strengthening.
This was his lesson on Descartes; the relevant dates and facts we could, presumably, learn from the book.
Most of my high-school teachers reluctantly shaped their teaching around the standardized tests we had to take every spring. They might have protested that this wasn’t the best way to teach, but so long as we had to take those tests every spring, it was their obligation to prepare us for them. Mr. M, however, didn’t seem to consider this his responsibility. If he covered basic dates and royal genealogies in class, it was to use them as springboards to the discussions of art and philosophy that were his true interest. He addressed us as though the life of the mind were not only accessible but urgent. Ideas, his manner implied, were worth grabbing by both hands and shaking to see what they were made of; ideas were worth clashing over – worth growing outrageous beards over.
Mr. M’s disquisitions on his favorite subjects could border on the surreal. In answer to a simple question, he might stare into space for an unnervingly long time. “Have you ever been skiing?” he’d ask abruptly.
Another long pause.
“Do you know what the word ‘dovetail’ means?”
“Have you ever watched a seagull land?”
Satisfied, he’d conclude his response with a deep nod. “Enough said.”
And he’d leave all of us there, holding his enough said in our uncertain hands, way out on the outermost twig of a logical limb. Sometimes we could make our way back to the main trunk of his logic. Sometimes nobody in the class seemed to have the foggiest notion what he’d meant.
This was not some elite prep school populated with students who might consider it natural to be treated as budding philosophers – the sort of students I’d go on to encounter in college: 18-year-olds possessed of names with Roman numerals and their own personal swivel chairs. Mr. M might have been teaching an advanced-placement class, but this was a high school where fewer than half the students would go on to a two- or four-year college. Honors classes ran concurrently with vocational ones. The hair was big, the voices were loud, there were knife-fights and kids with guns; after a gang-reprisal shooting at one of our basketball matches, the remainder of the season’s games had to be held at undisclosed locations.
In his classroom, Mr. M referred to us as ‘scholars’. This was a source of abundant snickering…until eventually our own jokes began to bore us and there was nothing left to do but stare at one another and start to take ourselves seriously. In fact, it began to be impossibly awkward not to take ourselves seriously, because Mr. M did so – relentlessly. At the start of one class period, Mr. M announced that we were going to learn how to give a firm handshake while looking him in the eye. For that entire class period, he did nothing but move between the rows of desks, fix us with his eyes and shake hands. It was uncomfortable, embarrassing and eventually tedious – but by the end of 42 minutes, any of us could have aced the first four seconds of a job interview.
Mr. M had a time set aside for each of his students every week. We could show up or not; it was our choice. He’d be there waiting, regardless, in his windowless office – a tiny wedge of a room that had clearly been designed as a closet, its gunmetal-gray walls lined with metal shelves holding a profusion of books. My time was Wednesdays, from 7:45 to 8 a.m. I never knew what the grist of the conversation would be; it was up to us, he said – we could talk about baseball or pizza or books, whatever was on our minds. If ideas struck at other times, that was okay, too. When a friend of mine was struggling with a paper he was writing, Mr. M instructed him to call him collect, at home, when inspiration hit. (My friend did – on a Friday night, from a movie-theater payphone.) I remember Mr. M – who had identified me as someone with a love of literature – reading me the opening of Finnegan’s Wake in that airless office. Mostly, though, I recall that if I asked a question, he’d think when I asked it. And the answer he returned to me – whether or not I could make head or tail of it – wouldn’t be a platitude.
Mr. M’s classroom could be a through-the-looking-glass, intoxicating sort of place. But that spring, when the European History A.P. exam came around, the downside of Mr. M’s approach became painfully obvious. Absurdly, I hadn’t seen it coming. Somehow, amid our lofty discussions of literature and philosophy, I’d forgotten I was to be judged for something other than my firm handshake. Suddenly I understood that there were solid reasons why my other teachers considered it their responsibility to undertake the onerous task of teaching toward the exams: we students would pay the price if they didn’t.
I shut myself into my room with my textbooks and panicked. I’d never been an Is-this-going-to-be-on-the-test? kind of student, but I was beginning to regret my non-grade-grubbingapproach. All the facts I hadn’t spent the year memorizing now seemed an impossible thicket. I cursed every page of dates and treaty names I didn’t know, I cursed every unfamiliar king and dauphin and czar, I cursed Rasputin. I lay on the faded blue carpet of my childhood bedroom and drank soda and invented ways to memorize chronologies of wars and treaties – and yes, the dates and facts of Descartes’ life, too, because apparently proving my existence wasn’t going to amuse the exam-graders.
It was a grueling experience. And when I was through, I’d learned one final lesson: how to appease the test-giving gods while handing them only two weeks of my life, rather than my entire year.
At some point, years after graduating high school, it occurred to me that Mr. M’s definition of his responsibility as a teacher came down to this: taking us more seriously than we took ourselves. He treated us as though we all had our sights on the same lofty goal as he – as though it were perfectly reasonable for us to set such a goal – and as if it were both a matter of course and absolutely essential that we attain it.
I keep a postcard that Mr. M sent me in college – a reply to one I’d sent him, in which I’d caught him up on my sophomore-year doings. Mr. M’s card began with a comment about something I’d once said about Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in a term paper he remembered more clearly than I did. Then, beneath that, he’d written in his crabbed handwriting: Hirohito is dead. Let us fight for a better world.
And then, beneath that, he’d written out the lines from Dylan Thomas.
Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Below that, his name.
Even now, I can almost hear his voice pronouncing, satisfied: “Enough said.” And it was. Whatever his literal message – and whether or not I even understand it properly – the subtext was, and is, clear to me now: what you and I – what all of us – say and think and resolve about the world matters, desperately.
Rachel Kadish is the author of the novels From a Sealed Room and Tolstoy Lied: a Love Story. She lives outside Boston with her family.