- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 5, 2005

LETTERS TO A TEACHER

By Sam Pickering

Atlantic Monthly, $19.95, 242 pages

REVIEWED BY JACK MATTHEWS

As a long-time admirer of Sam Pickering’s essays, I was a bit dubious in reviewing a book whose title suggests a worka-day practicality as alien to what I think of as “Sam Land” as lawn mowers to rhododendrons. But at the bottom of the very first page, I saw that this book is the real Mr. Pickering. “I’m not sure why I started writing. Sometimes I tell folks that I walked out of class one day after holding forth about the meaning of human existence, and realized I couldn’t identify the trees in my backyard.”

“Letters To A Teacher” is not designed as a how-to manual, giddy with inspiration and numbed by abstractions; it is pure Pickering, sharp, anecdotal and personal. Its subject is not so much that of “how to teach” as it is Sam Pickering, himself, and the reader is enriched by this fact. True, the book is organized under such conventional rubrics as: “The Teacher’s Life,” “The Good Teacher,” “Qualities of a Teacher,” “Words,” “Interests,” “Truth,” “Pressure,” “Requirements” and “Last Thoughts”; but don’t be deceived, for you will soon find yourself in Sam Land, which is a place well-worth visiting.

Of course, those who are addicted to solemnity may not agree — because, let’s face it, isn’t there an awful lot of cavorting in these pages? Even in the chapter on “Truth”? Sure, but the word truth needs to be teased and played with, because what charlatan doesn’t yodel it while he is busy shoveling your assets into his own piggy bank? And Mr. Pickering is no more a charlatan than a hardware salesman. Here, as in all his writing, he shows his contempt for the foggy abstractions that have always infatuated and beguiled the ignorant multitudes. Furthermore, upon analysis, one finds that much of his japery is simply clear-headedness, enlivened by anecdotes that are like those of no one else.

Many of these little stories will be familiar to those who are addicted to Mr. Pickering’s essays, for he enlists some of them from his previous books, always stating the fact as he hauls them out once again for the amusement and edification of the reader. But familiar or not, they are as entertaining as they are apt. Also there is something warming in once again meeting such wacky old friends as Slubby Garts, Googoo Hooberry and Loppie Groat, wildly invented characters who have enlivened many of Mr. Pickering’s anecdotes in his previous books.

The danger in such emphasis upon the frolicking good times that await the reader is obvious, for it suggests that nothing germane to the subject can be learned from “Letters To A Teacher.” But this is simply not true, for one often comes upon whiffs of wisdom in these pages, which enrich one’s life and through that, one’s teaching, because teaching is always to some extent a personal testimony; and no one reading this book with anything like understanding can fail to profit from it.

For many, Mr. Pickering’s authority as a teacher is enhanced by the fact that he served as the inspiration for the protagonist of the movie, “Dead Poets Society.” Understandable and interesting as this is, in a way it’s a shame, for it deflects from Mr. Pickering’s signal and joyful virtues as a writer. Film may be “the relevant narrative art of our time,” as it has so often been proclaimed, but that should not translate into a disregard of — much less contempt for — the written word, which is, and has always been, the fiber of civilization.

One of the universities’ tragic failures in recent decades has been their capitulation before the cult of “relevance,” leading to their striving ever more ardently to reduce the demands upon students so that they can rest in undisturbed comfort in their ignorance. Nowhere has this shameful and cowardly abdication been more perniciously at work than in English departments where Mr. Pickering has taught for so many years. In addition to teaching reading and writing, math and science, Mr. Pickering says, “you should expose students to difference. Children grow by comparing the familiar with the unfamiliar.”

In one way or another, all teachers are writers, if only in composing their syllabi for the upcoming terms. And much of the great merit of this book lies in Mr. Pickering’s own, personal testimony as a writer. As he puts it, he learned to write because “forcing thoughts into paragraphs disciplined my mind and made days bloom with observation.” And so it is that “Letters To A Teacher” is the flowering testimony of a remarkable teacher and writer, one who is as much at home on the page as in the classroom — not to mention his own backyard, where he can name all the trees and has anecdotes about them just waiting to be told.

Jack Matthews is Distinguished Professor of English at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

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