Devoting One’s Life to Teaching Language and Literature
I have been a reader for as long as I can recall. For better or for worse—certain members of my family and pre-college teachers would probably argue for the worse, my college professors, friends, and students would surely think it the better—my mother taught me to read sometime before my adventures in public education began, and I have been reading ever since. So great, and undisciplined, was this passion in early years that it often led me to be a very naughty fellow, the sort that tucks a novel behind a science or mathematics text in class, and thus a fellow with regrettably little knowledge of science and mathematics as he nears his fiftieth year. But this guilty pleasure gave me enough of a way with words, early on, to lead my exasperated teachers to encourage me to become a lawyer, if only to find some use for the unfortunate habit of arguing far too much.
When I arrived at college, I was greatly surprised to find that the same pleasure that had driven my teachers to despair was one for which I could get college credit, and that an English major was considered excellent training for one with an eye toward law school. So I dived happily in, bewildered but blissful to receive credit for simply reading books, and enjoying very much such pre-law classes outside of the department as Introduction to Philosophy and Logic. When I arrived in my first introduction to political science, however, I feared that I might not be cut out for law school after all; and this also happened to be the very semester in which I took two English courses, for the first time, with one Johnny Wink, who absolutely dazzled me on the first day of class, and who has been dazzling me ever since. Early in the semester, Dr. Wink happened upon a classmate and me playing pool in the student union, invited us home to meet his colleague and wife, and demonstrated how two English professors can easily both stop Time by talking about books and thoroughly drub two undergraduates in a game of pool. On that evening, and throughout the many visits that would follow, I marveled at the prospect of a career in which one was paid simply to read books and to share that love with others. By the end of that semester, I had happily abandoned any plans for law school and dreamed simply of being like Johnny and Susan.
Over twenty-five years later, I cannot imagine having done, or doing, anything else; for not only is it the life for which the Lord most clearly suited me, but it is also one in which my education has never stopped, in which each semester has enriched me and my students with the endless treasures preserved in literature. Such is what John Ruskin describes, in his great lecture on reading “Of Kings’ Treasures,” as the only real means of advancing in life:
“Mighty of heart, mighty of mind—‘magnanimous’—to be this, is indeed to be great in life; to become this increasingly, is, indeed, to ‘advance in life,’—in life itself—not in the trappings of it. My friends, do you remember that old Scythian custom, when the head of a house died? How he was dressed in his finest dress, and set in his chariot, and carried about to his friends’ houses; and each of them placed him at his table’s head, and all feasted in his presence? Suppose it were offered to you in plain words, as it IS offered to you in dire facts, that you should gain this Scythian honour, gradually, while you yet thought yourself alive. Suppose the offer were this: You shall die slowly; your blood shall daily grow cold, your flesh petrify, your heart beat at last only as a rusted group of iron valves. Your life shall fade from you, and sink through the earth into the ice of Caina; but, day by day, your body shall be dressed more gaily, and set in higher chariots, and have more orders on its breast–crowns on its head, if you will. Men shall bow before it, stare and shout round it, crowd after it up and down the streets; build palaces for it, feast with it at their tables’ heads all the night long; your soul shall stay enough within it to know what they do, and feel the weight of the golden dress on its shoulders, and the furrow of the crown-edge on the skull;—no more. Would you take the offer, verbally made by the death-angel? Would the meanest among us take it, think you? Yet practically and verily we grasp at it, every one of us, in a measure; many of us grasp at it in its fulness of horror. Every man accepts it, who desires to advance in life without knowing what life is; who means only that he is to get more horses, and more footmen, and more fortune, and more public honour, and—NOT more personal soul. He only is advancing in life, whose heart is getting softer, whose blood warmer, whose brain quicker, whose spirit is entering into Living peace. And the men who have this life in them are the true lords or kings of the earth—they, and they only.”