Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference

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"When Frank Lears came to teach at Medford High School in the fall of 1969, he looked easy prey to Mark Edmundson and his school-hating pals. At the front of the class, they saw a small, nervous man wearing a moth-eaten suit two sizes too big, with a large paperclip fastened to the left lapel. Lears, just out of Harvard, struck the class as absurd, the kind of teacher they could torment at will. And for some time, they did just that." "But Edmundson and his classmates radically underestimated Frank Lears. Lears got rid of their tired textbooks ...
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Overview

"When Frank Lears came to teach at Medford High School in the fall of 1969, he looked easy prey to Mark Edmundson and his school-hating pals. At the front of the class, they saw a small, nervous man wearing a moth-eaten suit two sizes too big, with a large paperclip fastened to the left lapel. Lears, just out of Harvard, struck the class as absurd, the kind of teacher they could torment at will. And for some time, they did just that." "But Edmundson and his classmates radically underestimated Frank Lears. Lears got rid of their tired textbooks and brought in Kesey, Camus, and Freud. He ran a group psychology experiment that no one in the room ever forgot. He opened the class to a panel of SDS members and a crowd of proto-Black Panthers. He risked life and limb in a snowball fight with Edmundson and his football-playing buddies. He shook things up." Lears's opposition to the lockstep life of Medford High got under the skin and into the minds of Mark Edmundson and his friends - friends like Dubby O'Day, a fatalistic goof-off majoring in spitball ballistics. The conflicting ways of life represented by Lears and Medford's formidable football coach, Mace Johnson, confronted Edmundson with a choice. At real cost - the cost of conformity and belonging - Edmundson chose to go Lears's way.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
In this touching memoir, English professor Mark Edmundson pays tribute to Frank Lears, the high school teacher who transformed his life. When Edmundson first encountered Lears in the late '60s, the young instructor seemed less like a role model than a student victim. Small, nervous, and unkempt, this recent Harvard graduate strove resolutely if futilely to engage his working-class students in discussions of Plato and Nietzsche. Derailed at every turn, he adjusted his ethical lessons to his students' wave-lengths, substituting Ken Kesey for Descartes. Edmundson's frank discussion of his own self-doubts during his high school years make Teacher a truly poignant book.
Publishers Weekly
Like Dead Poet's Society, this memoir tells of an extraordinary individual who touched his students' souls and steered at least one of them Edmundson toward the life of the mind. Its setting, however, is not a New England prep school but a tough working-class Boston high school in the 1960s. Frank Lears, the young iconoclast from Cambridge, dropped into Medford High as if from outer space (On the first day of class, we saw a short, slight man, with olive skin... wearing a skinny tie and a moth-eaten legacy suit with a large paper clip fastened to the left lapel). He proceeded to plumb the depths of the jocks and greasers with depth, endurance, humor and wisdom (when Lears listened... it felt as though... you were being fed something, something very good and sustaining). The full cast of the '60s is here: SDS, race relations, Freud, sex and God. Edmundson's perspective, however, is not from the center of the swirl of politics and psychedelics, but from a boy on the brink of uncertain manhood. Lears seemed to me the spirit of the sixties... as much as the spirit of Socrates, says Edmundson, who is now a literary and cultural critic and professor of English at the University of Virginia. Free in himself, he tried as hard as he could to make others free. If the prose is at times larger than its subject, it deftly captures the spirit of the times. The carefully crafted vignettes can't help taking readers back to their own ordinary origins and cause them to reflect upon those teachable moments that made a difference in their own lives. Agent, Chris Calhoun. (Aug. 13) Forecast: An author tour to Boston; Washington, D.C.; and Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., will generate interest, as will probable media play from the mags Edmundson writes for, including the New Republic, the New York Times Magazine, the Nation and Harper's. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
Mark is now a college professor at the University of Virginia. He looks back in his own life to the teacher who "made the difference." The teacher was Mr. Lears, just out of Harvard, and he was Mark's philosophy teacher at Medford High School, outside of Boston, in 1969. This was a working class community, and Mark's main interest was football. Until Mr. Lears' class, Mark had never read a book all the way through-he explains he didn't see that literature made any difference in anyone's life. His father was loving in his own way, but authoritarian and angry. Mr. Lears was different from anyone Mark had ever met. He was articulate. He wasn't an authority figure. And, as Mark carefully describes, this was not an immediate conversion. For weeks, even months, the students slept in Mr. Lears' class, or a few loudmouths held forth even though they hadn't read the text. Oh yes, there were a few good students, girls, but Mark hardly noticed. It was a subtle transformation of the class, and really change didn't take place until winter, a snowball fight, a visit from SDS students from Harvard protesting the Vietnam War, and a change of reading assignments that included Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Camus's The Stranger. Mr. Lears had them read aloud in class since they were so resistant to doing any homework, and he listened to students' comments carefully. With many digressions that describe Medford, his family life, football experiences, race relations in town, Mark captures so well what it is that can transform a student, a classroom. This memoir is a New York Times Notable Book, an honor it deserves. I don't think that YAs are ready for it, but certainlytheir teachers are. KLIATT Codes: P-Recommended. 2002, Random House, Vintage, 276p., Ages adult.
— Claire Rosser
Kirkus Reviews
The wry and affecting story of the teacher who got under the author’s skin and pointed his life in a new direction, much for the better. Frank Lears materialized at Medford (Massachusetts) High School in the autumn of 1969 and poured a little Socratic juice into the lives of his students, Edmundson (Nightmare on Main Street, 1997, etc.) being one of those lucky enough to soak some of it up. Drawing an exquisite picture of the stark social dynamics in working-class Medford (his grandmother, a chambermaid who cleaned rooms at Radcliffe, was sometimes given unwanted clothing by the students and referred to it as shopping at Cumlaude), Edmundson remembers that the students lived to torment their teachers and strove to “turn everyday life into a species of our favorite diversion, television.” Edmundson highlights what a freak Lears was: He disdained the students’ bear-baiting while managing to open doors for them; he never curried their favor, though he always listened to their rare utterances intently, utterances that increased slowly throughout the year. A product of the late-’60s Harvard, Lears dealt from a whole new deck, encouraging his students to think, to take up a distanced position from their tribal beliefs to give them an unconventional look, to shape a personality and a distinct vision. Edmundson appreciates that the age was ripe for such a transformation. Yet he is still filled with admiration that a teacher was willing to point his students toward Kesey and Ginsberg and Malcolm X and then convey to them somehow that they must each find their own way, staying true to themselves, however full of danger such projects might be. As a teacher of English at the University of Virginia,the author measures himself against an impressive standard. A small treasure, both Edmundson’s portrait of Lears and his high-relief, visceral snapshot of Medford.
From the Publisher
"For any reader who has been, or is currently, either a teacher or a student—that is to say, everyone—this is a book to be savored." —The Boston Globe

“Edmundson’s message of the world-changing importance of good high school teaching is more than ever one we need to hear. It’s rarely delivered with such passion, good humor and sympathy.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Wonderfully clear-eyed about the pains and pleasures of learning . . . One of the more inspiring days at school in recent memory.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“A testimony to the magic that can occur . . . when the right teacher meets a receptive student.” —The Christian Science Monitor

“A brilliant memoir, smart, vividly dramatic, and wry.” —Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air

“One of the best traits of Teacher is the author’s honesty. . . . By the book’s end, it’s a good bet a reader might think, ‘Hey, I wouldn’t mind taking a class from that guy.’ That’s about the highest praise a teacher can get.” —San Jose Mercury News

“Chockablock with wit, detail, and surprisingly clear-eyed memory. . . Powerful.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Rich with metaphoric prose and inlaid with lovely storytelling. . . . Brings to mind Robert Coles’s memorable writing about Perry Miller.” —The Washington Post

“An affectionate but unsentimental homage. . . We are taken on a compelling journey down the corridor of that most perilous and fateful of institutions–the American high school. A terrific book.” —Billy Collins, Poet Laureate and author of Sailing Around the Room

“Masterfully demonstrates the power of one man’s belief in the power of ideas to change lives.” —The Charlotte Observer

“We suspect it happens every day, but not often enough. . . A teacher makes a difference. Finally, here is the testimonial we are looking for. . . Hurrah to Mr. Lears and thanks to Mark Edmundson for validating the dream.” —Tampa Tribune

“A poignant memoir, a self-analysis that shares revelations and insights that widely apply to those gawky teenage years, and the liberation that comes from intellectual awakening.” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“A touching tribute. . . A humorous, vivid recollection of friends, teammates, and antagonists who accompanied [Edmundson] through high school in the ‘60s. . . Sure to resonate deeply with readers.” —BookPage

“A worthwhile read. . . Teacher is written in two voices: Edmundson as a high school student and as an accomplished academic. . . [He] weaves these two conversations into a thoughtful and engaging memoir.” —Rocky Mountain News

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375504075
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/6/2002
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.44 (w) x 9.60 (h) x 0.96 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia. A prizewinning scholar, he has published a number of works of literary and cultural criticism, including Literature Against Philosophy, Plato to Derrida. He has also written for such publications as The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, and Harper’s, where he is a contributing editor.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
FIRST DAY

What have we here?

None of us had ever encountered anyone like Franklin Lears, at least not up close. On the first day of class, we saw a short, slight man, with olive skin—we thought he might be Mexican—wearing a skinny tie and a moth-eaten legacy suit with a large paper clip fastened to the left lapel. On his feet were Ivy League gunboat shoes, lace-ups designed in homage to the Monitor and the Merrimack. He had hunched shoulders, a droopy black mustache, and Valentino-type eyes: deep brown, sensuous, and penitential. Even when he strove for some dynamism, as he did on the first day, explaining his plans for the course, he still had a melancholy Castilian presence, the air of an instinctively comprehending reader of Don Quixote. Like the Don, Lears could somehow look dolorous and hopeful at the same time.

He walked into the room where we were assembled, fifteen or so of us, in our evenly serried desks, and stared out at us, his philosphers-to-be, the baleful look tinged with optimism, like a rainbow playing along the edge of a quiet pool. He slouched in his suit, two sizes too big, Chaplin on a dismal day. Then he gazed long and hard at his feet, as though expecting some sympathy from the gunboats. He began to talk.

Lears told us this was a philosophy course and that philosophy meant the love of wisdom, and that that was interesting and worth knowing but it was no end in itself, for it led you on to other questions: What was wisdom? How did you get it? Was there any- one who had it? He asked us if we knew anyone who might be wise. Of course no one answered, though he left open a silent vacuum, inviting and a touchunnerving, for us to push our newborn thoughts into. (It was the first of many, many such vacuums.) And how would you love it—wisdom, that is—once you’d found it? The way you loved your family, your friends? And what if wisdom meant giving up or turning away from other things you loved?

He spoke very softly, with an impeccable, refined intonation that nonetheless carried the words to the back precincts of the classroom, where I sat gazing at this strange creature who had crossed our path, as self-assured, it seemed, and as vulnerable as a cat. I was studying this man—almost all of us were—for the critical signs. We wanted to know what we had on our hands. What manner of man was this? What, given the ongoing war of us-against-them, would we be able to get away with?

So far the signs looked good, fabulous in fact. The fellow was small, soft-spoken, polite, and, by the hypermacho standards of Me’ford, on the effeminate side. We might have struck gold. And yet it was too early to be sure. Miss Minty, who taught math, was tiny, with a pixie haircut, and nervous, sparrowlike movements. She danced in front of us wearing her white lab coat, covering the board with equations and coating everything in sight with snowy chalk dust. She too had looked to be an easy target. But by the end of day one, it was clear that she ran the show. She could screech, ridicule, dole out punishments. And she also seemed to come fitted with a Medford High teacher’s primary asset. “I have,” she often said, “eyes in the back of my head.”

Lears stepped away and put on the board a quotation from Nietzsche. The script was neater than anything that we would see from him again, yet still—in terms of the Palmer penmanship method we’d all been raised on in grammar school, waiting at the end of each month with collective breath held for our rating from Mr. Palmer, or one of his minions, a gold seal or star, a blue seal, or the school-disgracing black star—Lears’ writing was deplorable. It looked like a great variety of insects had been set loose to scramble on the blackboard and then froze simultaneously in mid-wriggle.

Tom Capallano, the quarterback on the football team, our one bona fide star and a pure high school alpha male, turned in the direction of me and Rick Cirone, split end and cornerback, and said, “See, I told you Nitschke was smart.” Capallano, usually known as Cap, was talking about the ferocious linebacker Ray Nitschke of the Green Bay Packers, and he was—I’m pretty sure—making a joke. Still, we had barely heard of Nietzsche, if we’d heard of him at all, and certainly no one in the class had read a word of his up until this moment. As for myself, I had never read all the way through a book that was written for adults and that was not concerned with football.

So what was I doing in a philosophy class? What was I, someone who cared exclusively about shooting pool and hanging out with my friends in the parking lot of Brigham’s ice cream shop and, above all else, playing football, doing listening to someone discourse about the love of wisdom? I owed it to my guidance counselor, Mrs. Olmstead, who was trying, by her lights, to save me.

*    *    * NOT LONG ago, she and I had had a talk about my future. Mrs. Olmstead was a short woman with tightly coiled blond hair. Everything with her was just so. She had large breasts that looked like a shelf for storage of some kind and a slightly elfish face, with narrow eyes, tight, pursed lips, and cheeks that seemed like they’d been applied with an ice cream scoop and then heavily rouged. Her perfume conjured up the tones of the Mantovani string section, sentimental, lush, and all-conquering.

The office where we met had no windows and fluorescent lights so strong that when you first walked in, you felt like a small-scale blast might have recently gone off. They made a constant nosy hum. On her shelf were few books but many dolls, peasant dolls from all over the world.

We talked about my prospects, which were not bright. I ranked 270th or so in a class of about seven hundred. I was well into the top half, she said, smiling, but alas I hadn’t quite made it into the higher third.

But it seems I wanted to go to college? Strange enough! I had, she noted, high Board scores, but that might only be a disadvantage. Because, you see, there were new surveys out about college performance, and what the surveys showed was that students with high Boards and low grades sometimes did very, very well in college. But they often did very badly, too. And there was one other factor. It seemed that these students were more likely than any of the others to get themselves in trouble with the administrators, to start political demonstrations and smoke pot and engage in free-form mischief of all sorts. The kids with their feet up on the provosts’ desks, puffing the big cigars, Groucho-style, after a successful takeover of the building? They were likely members of the high-Board-score, scrape-by-grades crew.

As to the high Board scores, I had a confession that I could have made but managed to hold back. It was that before taking my seat for a full day’s testing in the dismal high school cafeteria, I’d heard—we’d all heard—that dragging a nickel (I think it had to be a buffalo nickel) across the answer sheet would put the test-correction machines in an obliging mood and would result in a perfect score. But mightn’t that information have been wrong? (Medford scuttlebutt often was.) Mightn’t the rubbed nickel send the test-combine awry and give you a flat zero? I equivocated. I dragged the nickel, with the stoical Indian staring out disapprovingly at me, across about half the answer sheet, then stopped. So whether it was the buffalo and the brave who had racked up the respectable scores or whether it was me was something of an open question.

Mrs. Olmstead and I talked about Massachusetts Bay Community College and Salem State College for Teachers—these being the schools to which my credentials opened the doors. They were, I knew—everyone knew—high schools with ashtrays, where I’d have the chance to take all the courses I’d loathed at Medford High one more time, with teachers perhaps a shade less loony and a shade less despondent. It would be a phase in the eternal recurrence of the same thing, where I could continue to live at home and suffer interminably prolonged adolescence.

At least Mrs. Olmstead hadn’t come on strong with a pitch for Miss Fannie’s School of Cooking—associated, I believed, with Fannie Farmer chocolates—as the place to finish off what Medford High had begun. She’d done that to my friend Chuck Fiorello, whose mother and father had just died and who seemed to have even fewer prospects in the world than I did. But Fiorello wasn’t cowed. Fiorello affirmed his willingness to work in a gas station forever rather than apply to Miss Fannie’s. And Fiorello could wax eloquent on the view that working in a gas station—and he’d worked in plenty—was earthly hell. His position was that all the jails in the Commonwealth should be emptied and the prisoners assigned to combination gas dispensaries and auto repair shops—strong punishment; potent deterrent, too.

But beneath the bemusement, or my attempt at it, I was furious. Mass Bay! Salem State! That wasn’t the sort of thing I had in mind for myself at all. No, somehow I aspired to something better, though I couldn’t have said exactly what. I’d done nothing to distinguish myself, nothing to earn a half-decent future; still, I felt some right to one.

Mrs. Olmstead and I discussed my working for the city of Medford; perhaps I’d start by collecting trash (another loop in the precincts of hell), then graduate in time to a desk job.

“Does your father know anyone?” Mrs. Olmstead asked. This was then a Massachusetts mantra, and I suspect it still is. Do you know somebody? Does he know anybody? Posed in certain circumstances, in a certain tone of voice, this meant, Does somebody owe you or your family favors? Are you connected? Because it was simply assumed around Boston, by working-class types, that everything was done on the basis of connections. It was a residue from the old rebellion, when the poor Irish (from whom I was descended) had laid siege to the city of Boston and its environs, kicked the WASPs out—or at least propelled them upstairs, into the law firms and medical schools and universities—and then taken control of the joint. My grandmother, Irish, would put her fingers to her ears if anything irreverent was said about the beloved James Michael Curley, who, local lore had it, once learned of his victory in a Boston mayoral election from a prison cell.

Was I connected? When I was growing up in Malden—an equally rowdy city, where I lived until I was thirteen—my father had, on at least one occasion, taken me and all his traffic tickets in tow and gone down to the police station, where he’d laid a few dollars on the desk sergeant and walked unceremoniously out. (Once, said sergeant had turned up at our house. Why, I can’t tell you.) Could that sort of connection count?

Copyright 2002 by Mark Edmundson
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