Flying lessons

Barry Smolin teaches English at the Hamilton High School Humanities Magnet.

'Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man." A placard bearing those words, a quote from Francis Bacon, hung prominently on the wall above George Schoenman's desk at Fairfax High School. Schoenman taught there from 1959 to 1994, and multiple generations of slackers and scholars alike learned indelible lessons about writing and discourse and literature and life from him.

When Schoenman died of cancer several years ago, although there was a well-attended memorial for him in the school's auditorium, the world beyond Fairfax failed to take note. Unlike celebrities and politicians and others whose lives and deaths become global media events, teachers like Schoenman enrich the world in mostly unsung ways and then pass into oblivion. It's always like that with teachers.

I knew Schoenman for a long time, first as his student, then as his colleague and, ultimately, as his friend. While an arrogant sophomore in Mr. Schoenman's fourth-period honors 10th-grade English class during the 1975-76 school year, I was immediately captivated by his wry humor, his digressive lectures, his sweet charisma, his informal classroom management (we were allowed to eat in class, we could get up and go to the bathroom or the water fountain whenever we wanted, and he let us call him "George") and his willingness to have his own literary insights challenged.

"I'm no expert. I'm not any better at this than you guys; I've just been doing it longer. If you think I'm full of it, go ahead and tell me, tell me I'm wrong," he used to encourage us when explicating a passage from a novel or a poem. Of course, if you dared to do just that, he'd then proceed to cut you up like sushi and lay you out on a tray. Humiliating? Oh yeah, especially if the girl you liked was sitting next to you. But it was all part of the Schoenman charm.

His methods worked, and have continued to work, over and over again year after year. In college, in grad school, in life, to this day, whenever something has to be written, I, like multitudes of Schoenman alumni, hear his voice talking about "clarity" and "organization" and "development," about the offbeat power of the semicolon, the importance of a coherent thesis and transitional phrases, about the glory of meaningful discourse.

At Fairfax in those days, the received wisdom was that you took Mr. Schoenman to learn about writing and Mr. Battaglia to learn about literature. Even Schoenman would perpetuate the myth. "I can take you to the ceiling of your abilities," he would counsel us earnestly, "but Mr. Battaglia will lift the ceiling and show you infinity." Without doubt, Richard Battaglia was a phenomenal English teacher, but Schoenman's humility was a bit too self-deprecating because he was way more than just a writing teacher.

The truth is, he taught his students how to read literature exquisitely and maturely, and how to be sensitive to the subtle nuances of the written word. I learned from him not only how to write an essay but how to masticate the language and derive its essences, how to dig deep into the collective unconscious. Whether it was the poetry of ee cummings or A.E. Housman, or Camus' "The Stranger" or "A Separate Peace" by John Knowles, Schoenman modeled the art of close reading, explication de texte.

One particular session during 10th grade remains especially important to me. We were assigned to write a poem on an existential theme. I composed something called "Flying Solo," about a sad and very alone young man existing on the fringes of adolescent social life but making an attempt to soar despite the isolation. Mr. Schoenman singled out my poem as exemplary, handing out copies to the entire class and proceeding to analyze it with the seriousness he regularly applied to "real" literature. "He was destined to lead a life up in the air," Schoenman quoted from my poem, and then added, "This is very existential stuff, you see. It's all up in the air, we are all alone, doing what we can to defy gravity, in the midst of the absurd." The thrill of that validation has never left me. I still remember exactly where I was sitting and everything he said.

Oh, we had our differences, for sure. He loved Ernest Hemingway; I didn't. He thought "The Sun Also Rises" was thrilling and profound; I thought it was corny and boring. I joked around a lot in class, I slacked off, I was distracted by music and friends and females.

And yet, I was listening. I was getting more than I let on. I remember when I had the first inklings that I might someday want to become an English teacher. It was when I asked him why he had become a teacher. His initial answer was, "Because we're all going to die one day." But then he added: "Plus, it's better than having a real job. I mean, I get to sit here all day and talk about poetry. And they pay me to do it!"

When I was eventually hired as a new English teacher at my old school, Schoenman became my department chairman. I spent 1987 to 1992 teaching at Fairfax under his tutelage (I taught in the room next door to him, and he watched over me like I was still a 10th-grader).

As English department chairman, George believed that it was his job to protect his teachers from incompetent school administrators, boneheaded edicts from the school district and other bothersome bureaucratic distractions so we could focus on the real work of actually teaching children. Amen. And he was always good for a laugh, a thoughtful observation, Dodger tickets. (He served as head usher at Dodger Stadium for more than 30 years in addition to his full-time job at Fairfax High.)

My last memory of George Schoenman as a teacher and colleague dates to the spring of 1992. I was finishing up my teaching tenure at Fairfax, getting ready to move on to the Hamilton High School Humanities Magnet, finally indulging my itch to leave the womb of my alma mater, while George, conversely, was nearing the end of his long, distinguished career.

It was the evening of the school's annual open house for parents. The halls were empty, and teachers were preparing their rooms for visitors. I started to enter George's room to ask him a question, when I saw him sitting near the window, looking out at a view of trees in the quad. I don't know if he yet knew of his illness -- the leukemia that would eventually kill him -- but I suspect he felt that something was up. The heaviness of it, the inevitable reality of death -- the subject that informed so much of his teaching -- seemed to overwhelm him with its immediacy.

A few moments later, when I disrupted his contemplation and asked what he was thinking, he shared with me a simple wisdom that still glitters for me like Scripture. He said, "Gravity always wins." That was all. He didn't explain; I didn't pursue.

Teachers like George Schoenman are a vanishing breed. In this era of standardized testing, scripted curricula and the deleterious awfulness of No Child Left Behind, veteran teachers are either succumbing to the cookie-cutter mentality that drives the scramble for public funds or are leaving the profession entirely. Likewise, up-and-coming young credential candidates who have any shred of creativity and passion are scared away from a career in teaching because of the mind-numbing strictures that limit both teacher and student alike.

Gravity always wins, indeed.

And yet, even amid this scenario of inexorable descent, I wish George were here right now, so I could tell him he's full of it. I'd show him how instrumental he'd been in the successful launching of countless young minds who'd passed through his classroom, how his influence as a teacher still defies gravity and is carried miraculously skyward by all who followed his instructions and, because of him, learned how to soar.

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