English Department Honors Day Address
by Professor Reginald McKnight, Hamilton Holmes Professor
When strangers ask me what I do for a living, I usually tell them I’m a teacher. Their second and third questions are typically, “What do you teach?” and “What grade do you teach?” About half the time, people wince or frown when I tell them I teach English, and they seem rather nonplussed when I tell them I teach both graduate and under graduate students. Many of them will say, “Oh, you’re a professor.” And my rejoinder will be, “Yep, I’m a teacher.” Why do I insist on being called a teacher, when a professor can be defined as a teacher of high rank, or a teacher at a university of college? Well, firstly, I see it as a reminder to myself of what I feel my primary professional function is. And secondly, it is, to tell the truth, a rather vehement rebuke of an expressly unpleasant event I experienced in my seventh year as a university professor.
That year, I had learned something I had neither known nor suspected about my profession, about contemporary academe. You see, I was called onto the carpet for missing a meeting that the acting chair of my department had deemed important. Never mind the fact that the meeting time had been moved up two hours and no one had bothered to inform me. But I gathered about five minutes into my conversation with the acting chair that the meeting hadn’t been that important after all, but was a sufficient excuse to get me into the man’s office so that he could upbraid me for something quite different.
He said to me, “I’ve noticed we don’t see much of you around campus.”
I was a little surprised by this observation of his. After all, it was well known in the department that I was not only teaching there, but was a faculty member in a low residency MFA program in the Northeast. Moreover, folks knew I spent only three and a half days a week in the state. The other three and a half days I lived in Pittsburgh, helping my former wife tend to our two very young children.
To be honest, I wasn’t entirely clear on what the chair was getting at so I said, “Look, I know I don’t got to a lot of meetings, but—”
“I’m not talking about departmental meetings, Reg,” he said.
“Well,” I replied, “If you’re talking about my classes, man, I have to say I meet all but a couple a year. I’m a good teacher. I keep my office hours and work hard on student essays and writing samples.”
I talked for about two minutes on what I believed to be my virtues as an educator. As I spoke, his face became increasingly red until it reached the color of a steamed lobster. When he could clearly take no more, he held up his hand, and I immediately fell silent. But he did not speak right away. He looked down at his desk, shook his head, sighed loudly.
Finally, he looked up at me and said, “Look, Reg, I don’t know how this fact escaped you, given the fact you’re a full professor and everything, but nobody gives a flying (understand that I am euphemizing here) flag about those students, particularly undergraduates. Universities haven’t been about students for a good long while. Universities are about politics, power, publishing, positioning…”
He went on for quite some time, but I stopped listening. My ears beat with blood; my face burned. I felt deflated, baffled, astonished, hurt, humiliated. I hadn’t known that no one cared about the students. I’d never heard of such a thing. It seemed like saying that football wasn’t about full-on contact or that movies weren’t about images. My mind was plunged into deep waters.
The acting chair’s alliterative riff at the beginning of his talk took me rather unexpectedly back to my freshman year of high school. When I was in ninth grade, I had been tracked in courses for low-achieving students. Back then, where I went to school, they had four different academic tracks. On the top, of course, were the Honors courses; just below that was the C-track, the so-called college-enriched courses; next down was the B-track, which was for students who were oriented towards the technical/vocational areas of study, and finally there was the A-track, courses for students requiring no more than a pulse.
I was a poor student, in terms of grades, but quiet and an avid reader. I wrote poetry and music, played guitar. I aspired to be a singer/songwriter, after the fashion of Ritchie Havens or Bob Dylan. I never imagined going to college, and no one, not my parents, or teachers, or friends ever me encouraged me to do so. My mother used to tell me that she was happy if I managed to maintain a C average. What was the point of dreaming about college? I was, after all, A-track.
As much as I liked language and reading, I can’t say I cared much for Mrs. Heinz’s 9th grade English course. I didn’t like it because I didn’t believe Mrs. Heinz liked us. I couldn’t blame her, though. As a group, we were wisecracking and obstreperous, fidgety. I often felt sorry for her. She was a tiny, brittle, tightly wound woman, not much beyond ten years our senior. She seemed afraid of us. She was forced to spend much of the fifty-minute hour keeping us quiet and in our seats. I don’t remember anything were read, and there were no class discussions beyond, “Where is your book, Mr. Beatty?” and “Give her the pen back and sit down, Mr. Levell.”
One day, my best friend, Pat Gregoire, who sat in front of me, whipped around in his chair, just as class was getting under way. Pat slapped his open textbook on my desktop, aimed his finger at an Emily Dickinson poem and said, “Hey, Reggie, check out the onomatopoeia in this poem.”
We’d learned the term in Mrs. Dalton’s English class the previous year. I must admit I was a little fuzzy on its meaning. I always got it mixed up with the word “alliteration.” But all I said to Pat was, “Cool.”
Mrs. Heinz, red-faced, taut, slit eyed, said, “Mr. McKnight, why don’t you stand and tell the class about the important matter you’re discussing with Mr. Gregoire.”
Made my heart thump like crazy. I was rarely called out for anything in class. My whole thing was, in a nutshell, invisibility.
I stood, said, “Me and Pat were talking about onomatopoeia in a poem.”
Mrs. Heinz reddened still more deeply. She stared at me for a 30-second interval that seemed like a full three minutes. I stood there, my heart thumping into my throat, my throat trying to swallow it back down into my chest.
“Sit down,” was all she said.
The next day, I was called from Mrs. Heinz’s class to the counseling office to meet with Mrs. Ray. A-tracker that I was, I wasn’t unaccustomed to being called from class for any reason. I was terrified that whatever Mrs. Ray had to tell me would eventually get out to my parents. Let’s just say that Mrs. and Master Sergeant McKnight were decidedly old school about school. And so was Mrs. Ray. She was the opposite of Mrs. Heinz in nearly every respect: tough, unflappable, willowy, billowy, a platinum dynamo who wouldn’t have been intimidated by the IRS, Homeland Security, Robert Mitchum, you name it. I entered her office—she pointed to a chair, and with zero ado, said, “Tell me about Mrs. Heinz’s class yesterday. What happened?”
You may not learn much in A-track classes, but you do learn to deny everything. “Nothing,” I said.
“Mrs. Heinz said you were discussing onomatopoeia with another student in class the other day.”
I made no reply at first. If I was going to go down for talking style and prosody in an English class, I wasn’t going to make it easy for her. But after a lengthy pause, I said, “We only talked for a minute.”
“Well, you sure took her by surprise. She couldn’t even remember what the word meant and had to look it up after class.”
Welcome to the club, I thought.
“What we’ve decided is a kid who could discuss onomatopoeia doesn’t belong in A-track English, so we’re going to try you in a C-track course and see how you do.”
To tell you the truth, I was rather alarmed. I wanted to tell Mrs. Ray that it had been Pat Gregoire, and not I, who had brought up the subject of onomatopoeia. I wanted to tell her that I’d looked up the word after school, and realized that what Pat had meant was alliteration. He had confused the words in the same way I had. Alliteration. Politics, Power, Publications, Positioning (whatever that means).
When the chair ended his talk about what a university is all about, in our time, I felt very much the same way I had in Mrs. Ray’s office, like an A-track kid who feels as if he’s better off keeping his trap shut, a kid who earns his C if he does nothing more than stay in his seat. I silently took in all that he said, and I asked him what he expected of me, what he would have me do.
He said, “There’ll be a reception for an emeritus candidate tomorrow at three. I’d like you to be there. There’ll be some people there I’d like you to meet.”
“That’s all?” I said.
“You just want me to show my face, right?”
Incidentally, the only time he showed any satisfaction with my “work” was when my words and image would appear in the campus paper. Whenever such a thing would take place, he’d scribble his congratulations on a copy of the periodical, taking care to use a good number of exclamation points. In fact, it became abundantly clear to me that I was in danger of becoming a poster boy for his own professional causes, whatever they might have been. I wanted to tell the chair that, for me, universities are about finding A-trackers who belong in the C track, so to speak. I wanted to tell him about the teacher who mistakenly moved me from her own class to another’s, but had not been embarrassed or disappointed to have done so. I don’t know what grade I earned in that C-track class, but I remember I loved reading 12 Angry Men, and The Red Badge of Courage, “Metamorphosis,” “The Hunger Artist,” “Flowers for Algernon,” which was, for some reason, my favorite story that term. I loved being treated like a smart guy, and soon, I learned that teachers did not want our silence and stillness, but our minds, and our passion for growth and change. They actually wanted to hear what we had to say. That strange, serendipitous change in my first year in high school radically altered the trajectory of my life. As Alice Miller puts it in her extraordinary book, The Drama of the Gifted Child: “For the majority of sensitive people, the true self remains deeply and thoroughly hidden… how can you love something you do not know, something that has never been loved? So it is that many a gifted person lives without any notion of his or her true self. Such people are enamored of an idealized, conforming, false, self."
It is simple for me; I am forever on the hunt for the Pat Gregoires out there. I am perpetually ready to repay Mrs. Heinz for her attentiveness, her intention, and her hopefulness. It is my wish and my desire to peer beneath the false selves of each of my students and help them find their giftedness.
I congratulate each and every one of you for all your hard work, your long hours in the library, and online, for your perspicacity, your brilliance. You are each on the precipice of power, but keep in mind how it can corrupt you.
And because professors and scholars are self-governing, you will engage in the political… but politics will shift and bend like windblown grass. You will most assuredly publish, if that is your goal, and you work hard enough, but remember that books go out of print much more easily than they are written and put into print. People often forget them. And when you find out what this positioning thing is, write me or e-mail me, and bring me up to speed on that, will you? But while you go about the alliterative cycle of being professors, or chefs, or clerks, or social workers, or peace officers, mechanics, librarians… try, every now and then, to throw yourselves into teaching as though some young—or not so young—person’s very life depended on it. You never know what might happen.
One more thing: You know, I have been writing to you as though we are all living in some other era or timeline where everything is pretty normative, and where our hopes and dreams will manifest with a little luck, and a little elbow grease, but that just ain’t so. These are different and darker times, where each of us stands on the precipice of the unknown.
These days, I often find myself thinking about how Londoners and other Brits coped with the Blitz, that horrific bombing campaign that lasted for eight long months in the early 40s, killing over 43,000 civilians, and destroying thousands of buildings. How did the English cope? I haven’t a clue, but they did. Those bombs didn’t break their will, which was what they were supposed to do, but hardened their resolve.
When each night’s assault ended, they left their air-raid shelters, dug through rubble to retrieve the wounded and the dead. They swept up the shattered glass. The hosed away the blood. They put out the fires. They gathered to pray, and bury the dead. They cooked their meals. They read their books, listened to the radio, checked on neighbors, family, friends. They fed their pets, went to work, or made love, or wrote poems or sermons or stories or essays for class. They gathered at pubic houses to have a stiff one and sing songs and listen to speeches, or gossip, or sad stories.
In short, they went on, standing as close to normal as the current reality would let them. They went on because they chose to. It’s that simple. For they knew that survival and flourishment and even prosperity, are not simply a random matter, but a matter of choice, of will, of resolve, of spirit.
Congratulations on everything you have accomplished. We are so proud of you.
Reginald McKnight, Hamilton Holmes Professor