I think on biographies often of late. Not that I read them much, just occasionally. I’m more attracted to imagining the life maps of people I’ve crossed paths with, sometimes in major encounters but just as likely in subtle, ephemeral ways, like when a billiard ball kisses another in passing on a pool table. As experience grows, so does the depth of meaning one becomes able to infer from these encounters. It was such an imagination which caused to me look up an old high school teacher not long ago…
In my town during the late 60’s in New Jersey (I have little idea how widespread this practice was), the school boards implemented a nice concept for high school sophomores and juniors: block. Block class occupied the entire afternoon, commencing right after lunch, so maybe two and a quarter hours. It was a mash of English, history, current events, literature and so on, left in the creative hands of one teacher, who evidently was accorded a good deal of freedom in terms of constructing a curriculum. We had over 500 kids in my high school cohort, so I was one of the fortunate 5% or so to be scheduled into Mr. Whalen’s block class. This wasn’t just my opinion, since by November tons of kids, both friends and unknown, were often asking me about his class, his style, his reading lists and so on. It was a heady time, 1968-69. We palpably sensed that we were on the cusp of inheriting the reins of a society in the midst of a wild transformative ride. Dave Whalen was the perfect emcee.
I knew it was quite possible that Dave Whalen would have crossed the threshold roundabout by now. We’re talking high school teacher of a sextagenarian here. And so it was; I discovered that he had made it to age 82 before passing a couple of years ago. Here’s a look at a memorial page for him, upon which some interesting things stand out for me. A colleague, another block teacher, Mr. K, recalls him as a scholar, a gentleman, and a fellow coach (in track: it was pleasing for me to learn of this surprising dimension of his being, which I had never been exposed to). Think of this for a moment. An individual, also in his eighties, taking some time to stress some qualities of an individual he’s not seen in decades. It’s unusual for a high school teacher to be passionately scholarly, but Mr. Whalen was. He was driven to pursue all angles of some new topic which piqued his, or a student’s, interest, coming at it from literature, history, poetry, academia and any other perspective he could devise. Kids respond to passionate engagement from adults. They can quickly see when it is real. Even my 5-year-old son is this way. It’s the communal and real curiosity which matters, the subject matter being quite ancillary. Pupils do not want pontificating, they want engaging inquisitive passion from a guide with perhaps a bit more experience than they possess. Dave Whalen had the intellectual chops to loiter in the academy had he chosen to do so, but he knew the real importance of stimulating young hearts and minds and his deep talent for this would not permit any confinement in ivory towers. He was a lot of people’s favorite teacher, because he gave what people were starving for
First week, very first day even, Mr. Whalen explained why there was a pile of several dozen NY Times newspapers stacked in front of the classroom by the door. Everyone was to pay for a subscription, weekdays only, for the entirety of the school year. Everyone would learn how to read the paper, browse the index, develop favorite recurring articles and writers, get familiar with editorials and so on. Of course he knew many would choose the sports columnists — but that was cool too. Most days featured fifteen minutes or so of free time just to read the paper. Numerous discussions arose from this, and we all became aware to various extents about one another’s opinionated proclivities. The other initial requirement for Dave’s class was to purchase a copy of Mortimer Adler’s book about how one reads books. This became our text for the first few months, and we would apply its secrets to the vaster reading list of contemporaries and classics which Mr. Whalen amassed. I well recall marking up the book in the margins — Adler believed in ample margins for the reader’s comments — and creating my own adapted system, which persisted for years into adulthood.
But the most charming aspect of Dave Whalen’s personality, for me, was his poetic bent. If something moved him during his preparatory ruminations, he’d happily improvise a 45-minute session devoted to reading out loud something which moved him and then eliciting a discussion about it. The material was wide ranging because that was the nature of his curiosity. It could be an expansive Bob Dylan lyric one time. Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. Or Blake or Keats or Dickinson. He would put his reading glasses on, switch modes into an expressive gear, and read slowly, emotively, sometimes surprising himself about which words and sounds he would linger over. I still remember his cadence and can picture his scanning eyes during T.S. Eliot’s ‘Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’. How haunted he genuinely was by some lines: (audio)
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets…
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo…
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
He also cultivated personal relationships freely, at least with some of us. He often told me I should try to look into Immanuel Kant, for example. Not that he thought I should incorporate his philosophy. Rather, it was that he intuited Kant’s ideas would be a good thing for me to grapple with. He also hand selected Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel” as the novel I should specialize in that semester based on his reading of my makeup. One time we were chatting and I let on that it was becoming a bit of a headache, externally imposed on me, about which general direction to choose soon: sciences & technical (I was wicked good in math those days) or the liberal arts & humanities. For me, I sorely wished to turn my back upon neither. He thought on this a moment and told me in that expressive voice: “It’s okay. You know, we could use some more engineers with soul.”
I turned him onto Leonard Cohen, a deeper more introspective antidote to Dylan for my own sensibilities. Dave dug him, but he could never move too far afield from his instincts for outrage over social injustices of various forms. I think this was where the roots of his love for Dylan’s verses lay, plus his love of the illiteration and syllabic melody. I tried out Earth Opera on him once, but he politely demurred, thinking it perhaps too youthfully pissed off for his tastes. The thing with Dave was that anybody could approach him confidently with anything. The previous evening’s sizzling defense on the part of the New York Knicks. Some recent trends in psychology. What it was like to be a parent, to work for a living. Women’s rights. Anything. Co-terminously with Dave Whalen’s acquaintance in my life, I learned how it was okay to project myself outrageously and with my actual originality, as long as I paid respect to keeping my grounding within legitimate intellectual boundaries. Maybe some of it would have happened regardless. But I think his influence was particularly valuable; it granted permission, legitimacy, and a certain cajoling prod. If we are fortunate we meet 2 or 3 such influences during our formative years signaling that our uniquely human creative impulses are the really germane factors in a worthy education — not factual materials. If education was as it should be, this would not be an unusual thing. But sadly, nowadays maybe even moreso, it all comes down to a handful of authentic romantic mavericks. Who can see.
[ Mr. Dave Whalen ; Collage album cover for Earth Opera’s “The Great American Eagle Tragedy” – a couple of us were quite taken by the wonderful title track, a brilliant 11-minute anti-war piece, seething with creative outrage, from early 1969. (hear it) ; New York Times’ boldest headline from 1969 ; T. S. Eliot, around the time when he published “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” in 1915. ]
Notes: Lyrics for “The Great American Eagle Tragedy” can be found here. And the full text of T.S. Eliot’s poem is available here. Mortimer Adler was an educator who long professed at the University of Chicago and became noted for his advocacy of strongly returning to the classics in order to redeem American education, during the 1980s. Free online PDFs exist for his best known work: “How To Read A Book”.
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