Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Socratic Provocateur

PLEASE READ this inspiring retirement letter that I've decided to call, "follow your bliss."

Dear Sir,
In your letter of 11/16/08, you asked me why I have taught all these years, and, indeed, if the “sacrifice” was worth it. On 6/03/09 in a private, celebratory moment, Brother James and the English Department awarded me a plaque on which was engraved, among other titles, “Socratic Provocateur”. In the tough, Sicilian neighborhood in Brooklyn where I was raised, such an uninvited branding would have resulted in flying fists and threats of life-long vendettas, except that no one would have understood what it meant, and later everyone would have apologized and gone for pizza.
Perhaps it would be better for me to reference that famous moment between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell, who, after many months of extensive interviewing was asked, as the penultimate question, what he had truly learned from a long, scholarly life in pursuit of the meaning of myth. Campbell smiled into the camera and said simply, “Follow your bliss.”

I don’t mean to imply, per se, that teaching is bliss. If you think it is, see me tomorrow, because I have some shore property in Ohio I would like to sell you. Lord knows that grading senior argumentative treatises entitled, “My Sister Uses Too Much Hot Water In The Morning” or writing college recommendations for students who would be better off carrying the mail (in Kazakhstan) are hardly objective definitions of bliss.
Nevertheless, I was lead by my instincts. I listened to an inner voice that found excitement in the interaction with the young; that found inspiration in the contemplation of poetry and the conveyance of its truths to budding citizens of our culture; that promised that I could be as much student as teacher in the exploration of civilization’s destiny. Incidentally, this was the same voice that promised me two months off every summer. The Don Corleone of my soul made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Is it the same for thee, Mr. Dowd? I think so. I have had the pleasure of observing your enthusiasm, creative spirit and liveliness in the classroom, and I fear you have been bitten by the same bug. You have my sympathies and my congratulations. You will find that sacrifice will be mixed with heartache, anger, frustration, hilarity, irony, intrigue, unexpected triumphs and sweat. If you never lose the guidance of that inner voice, you will last the course.
Furthermore, you are fortunate to work with and among a dedicated, tireless, compassionate and nutty faculty that is, in my humble opinion, the best on the high school level anywhere in this nation, especially Professor Higgins, who gave me a gift certificate to my favorite trout fishing outfitter. How can you lose playing with this championship team? What you sacrifice will be returned to you tenfold, especially when Coach Keane nails yet again the next oncoming snow day. And he is only one of many legends seated around you.
In conclusion, I will say that I never thought my final days of teaching would end like this. When I began my career just subsequent to the First World War, in my wildest dreams I never thought I would stand in front of bright young men, explaining to them that the ice caps are melting, that the rate of background planetary extinction is 1,000% faster than the Cretaceous Period, that the great oceans are dying, that we are entering a new, third, Dark Age of illiteracy, that reason as a form of self-governance and intellectual integrity would be on the wane, that Bricktown, NJ, would have in excess of 43 traffic lights, and that Dick Cheney has a gay daughter.
Nevertheless, you will find, as I have, that a generic part of teaching is that one learns to accept what is even as one works toward what could be. I accept my mantle as Socratic Provocateur. Certainly it is far more agreeable to what my ex-wife has called me. But more than that, it means that perhaps I have contributed a humble moment, a flash in the pan or New York Minute, to a profession that is among the few redeeming reasons for humans to occupy space on this spinning cosmic rock.
Robert Frost said that “Poetry is a momentary stay against confusion.” I say that in your best moments, you should be that for your students. Then and only then have you earned your two personal days.
God bless and Godspeed

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