Friday, March 4, 2016

A Tale of Two Cities and of two places in time


I had three excellent English teachers in high school in the early 1960s, but Mr. Robinson, during my senior year, was my favorite.  He was a middle-aged man with whitish hair, bespectacled, soft-spoken, and the kind of guy who exuded mild manners with every word.  He had a gentle smile that he sported often, never a belly laugh, and an acceptable sense of humor.  He always wore a sport jacket; I remember it as gray or brown tweed.  He was the personification of what we all envision when we think of a college English professor at an Ivy League school.

That year in English, we mostly read great books and practiced our writing skills.  Unlike his usual outward demeanor, Mr. Robinson was a ruthless editor, which we thought was somewhat unfair at the time.  But he knew that freshman English in college was not a cake walk in those days, and that most of us would be facing that trial in only a few months.  For example, I was bound for Ohio State that fall, and a high percentage of entering students got Ds or Fs in freshmen English on a regular basis; about a third of OSU frosh flunked out of school during their first year.  So we wrote, and Mr. Robinson edited, and we rewrote, and he re-edited, and slowly but surely most of us got better and better at composing a readable, logical piece. 

That fall semester in college, I found out exactly what Mr. Robinson had been trying to get us to understand.  No matter how hard I tried, it was nearly impossible to get higher than a C on an English composition.  Those who had not had Mr. Robinson seemed to do even worse. But eventually, my scores, and presumably my writing skills, improved and I survived that academic year more or less unscathed, in no small way due to my mentor’s efforts the year before.

Perhaps the most vivid academic memory of that class was reading and discussing Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities.  How can anyone who has ever read that book not recall at least parts of the first and last sentences of that wonderful story.  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times……..” and “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…..”  Oh, to be able to write a book, or an essay, or even a paragraph of prose with elements that have resounded through the ages like that.  Those words are certainly famous and timeless in their own right, and millions of people around the world are familiar with them.  But would they have left their indelible imprint on my soul if it had not been for Mr. Robinson’s ability to bring out the richness of their import?  That is what a great teacher can do, and it is a wonderful thing.

I have not reread that classic since I studied it in high school all those years ago.  But from time to time I think about that story, its characters and the beautiful expression of their powerful emotions through Dicken’s talented hand.  And then today, while I was a substitute teacher in a high school class, I realized that a copy of that gem was sitting on the desk at which I was sitting.  I stared at it for a long moment, not quite sure what I should do.  But I picked it up, and I read that incredible first sentence (which was much longer than I remembered).  And then I turned to the final page with all its sadness and I read Dickens’ last sentence. The memories of sitting in my high school English class only a few seats from Mr. Robinson’s desk, and waiting with anticipation for his clever way of getting us to dig for the depth of meaning that cemented that book forever in my mind, poured over me.

And I sat there, looking out over this class of 20 or so students, and I felt just like I remember Mr. Robinson looking.  We have all experienced something like that.  I have white hair, I’m sitting at a desk staring pensively at all those young minds with a curious smile on my face, and I’m feeling how important it is to open the minds of those teenagers, to make them feel something, to make them remember something beautiful about the great literature of the past.  For that fleeting moment, I WAS Mr. Robinson.

I have often wondered whatever happened to Mr. Robinson, but I’m sure he passed a long time ago.  After all, he was my teacher more than 50 years ago.  A Tale of Two Cities was published in 1859 (the same year that Darwin published Origin of Species), and it was about 100 hundred years old when I first read it.  Another half century has passed, and students are still asked to read it.  How incredible!  Another half century, and I’m hoping there are still Mr. Robinsons out there.  Thousands of them, tens of thousands of them, because the world needs them—every last one.