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The Academic Character

 

A great teacher movie

 

We all have our sulky moments when we go back to school.  I  stood up for an hour and a half the other night  conducting a review of grammar, writing declensions and conjugations on the board.  I had an out-of-body moment of despair when I looked down on the group and desperately wanted to smoke a cigarette–a piece of chalk would have done– and ask them to write on the board for me .  Next week we’ll make the transition.  They’ll have homework so I’ll be able to sit down and watch them translate part of the work themselves and then they will write some of it on the board.  They’re good students and do very well but I must discipline myself not to stare into space because I might miss an error while drifting in the sea of distracted thoughts.  SO I MUST STOP IN THE COFFEESHOP FIRST AND GET A STRONG CUP OF ESPRESSO.  I must look as though I am absorbed only by the passage by Cicero.  

Teachers and students are frazzled this time of year yet love to return to their houses to read fiction and memoirs about the lives of teachers, governesses, & professors. Haven’t we all been inspired at some time or another by a knowledgeable teacher who loved her subject and her work?  Don’t we devour satires about their eccentricities and the administration’s absurdities?  I’ve read academic novels endlessly over the years,  laughing, sympathizing, and admiring.  Here are ten of my favorite teacher books, some of which were passed around my family, three generations of whom have been teachers at one time or other.  We do, however, have the “Get out” gene.  

1.  I’m Not Complaining by Ruth Adam.  This was one of my favorite Virago novels, but, alas, I’ve lost it somewhere on my shelves and don’t trust my memory to write about it.  It’s the unsentimental story of an elementary school teacher who does not idealize her work.  I found it at a bookstore.

2.  Teacher by Sylvia Ashton Warner (1963).  A beautifully-written memoir-diary of a New Zealand teacher who inspired her Maori students by respecting their language and tracing the origin of words. First introduced to me at age 14 by my aunt, a professor at a state university and the only member of my family to have earned a Ph.D.

3.  Villette by Charlotte Bronte.  A complicated Gothic autobiographical novel about a woman’s experiences teaching in Belgium.  Bronte’s best, in my opinion.  First introduced to me at age 14 by the aforementioned aunt.

4.  To Serve Them All My Days by R. F. Delderfield.  A World War I veteran teaches history at a private school.  One of my favorite books–okay, a bit sentimental, but very well-written.  First introduced to me by the Masterpiece Theater series.   

5.  Night and Silence, Who Is Here?  by Pamela Hansford Johnson.  One of the funniest satires I’ve ever read.  An English playboy is offered a job at a New England college where he spends most of his time foraging for food, as there are no stores or restaurants and he can’t drive.  He is also determined to do no work.  I found it by chance at Amazon.  

6.  Deaf Sentence by David Lodge.  One of the funniest of academic satires.  A retired linguistics professor who dislikes wearing his hearing aid makes endless faux pas, alienating everybody.  Then he agrees to advise a compulsive liar on her dissertation and life gets much more farcical.  I discovered this novel through reading a review in some traditional paper.

7.  The English Teacher by R. K. Narayan.  Can’t remember this one very well, but the hero teaches at the same college where he went to school and there are various difficulties.  Loved this!  I read it in an Everyman edition of Narayan’s work, which I learned about through a review (somewhere).  

8.  The Human Stain by Philip Roth.  An aged classics professor proves irresistible to a young illiterate gorgeous female janitor.  If you’re saying, “Oh, really?”, well, all I can say is Roth writes well, though it is incredible.  I found out about it through buying everything Roth ever wrote.

9.  Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers.  Poison pen letters at Shrewsbury College lead Harriet Vane to investigate.  One of Sayers’ best books.  Found out about it through Masterpiece Theater series.

10.  Moo by Jane Smiley.  One of my favorite academic satires, set at Moo U, a mainly agricultural and engineering school.  Smiley used to teach at Iowa State University.  I found this novel by buying everything Smiley writes.

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