Today I finished my last day of teaching. The schedule calls this a “exam review” day, but since my students don’t have an exam in my class, we didn’t have anything to review. Instead, we watched Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl. No prep. No discussion. Just hit play.
I didn’t really plan to end the year with this. I was just looking for an activity that wouldn’t completely waste 45 minutes of class time. Turns out, a documentary about words, art, life, rhetoric, and God summarized everything I’d been trying to say for nine months. Funny how things work out sometimes.
It has been, as they say, a year. Cheers to a long, hot summer.
Day after day, hour after hour, on this unyielding horizontal surface, marked by the gashes of hard labor and punctuated by such objects as books, paperclips, and a lamp, I, a red potato of humble origin, desirous of nothing more than a comfortable place to sleep and perhaps room to stretch out a tentative shoot or two, which may, Deo volente, someday grow to become fat and healthy tubers in their own right, after accruing much water and the nutrients necessary to prosperity, lie on my back and wait.
A vast country spreads out in front of me, brown and barren. Ahead, in the distance, a fat, dark line rests against the horizon. I walk for what feels like an entire day, though the sun never moves across the sky. It’s odd. Here, the sun operates as though on a switch, blinking on suddenly and darkening in the same way. My boots scuff the dirty ground, kicking up large flakes that float on the air before settling down behind me that marks my path. Eventually, I come to a collection of towers, hard as mountains and rising up out of the ground far beyond my head. The towers are the deep pink color of Himalayan salt. Several miles beyond them, a cliff rises out of the ground, a cliff of such immense proportions it’s hard to believe that this world has not been split in two.
A lead balloon. A boxer’s kidney. A rock full of water. An apple up all night. An egg from a bird made of dirt. A mini-meteorite. A hippo in hibernation. A manatee’s shrunken head. A pineapple’s sidekick. The opposite of wine.
If I didn’t already know what a potato was, I could easily mistake this object for a rock. On closer inspection, however, it becomes easier to tell that what I’m looking at is, or was, alive. One clue is that it has clearly grown: there are wrinkles in its surface, which you would not normally find on a rock this size. Next to those wrinkles are small divots, and, inside each divot, the light red color that covers the object in patches grows darker, suggesting that pigmentation is gathered in those spots. Again, this is not something you would see on a rock, rigidly structured. Even the brown color is not uniform. Small spots of green and yellow are scattered throughout. And, as I said yesterday, it has some give to it. When I squeeze, the skin bends, ever so slightly. I push my thumbnail through the surface. The skin splits with the sound of a boot stepping into wet grass.
Every day this week, my students will spend a few minutes in class describing the same… potato.
I decided it was only fair that I do the exercise along with them. So, Monday:
It sits in my palm like a baseball, but weighs slightly more. I can feel it tugging groundwards. Large for a red potato, it is covered with eyes, mostly on one half. On the very end, six eyes are arranged in a triangle pattern, like the tip of an arrow. I said it’s a red potato, but it’s more brown than red, whether with dirt or natural coloring, it’s hard to tell. The skin feels like the bottom of a foot, not rough so much as calloused. A tap on the skin tells me the interior is tight and full, not hollow nor squishy. Holding it to my nose, I smell old water, like what you might find in a tire swing. If I found this buried in the dirt somewhere, I wouldn’t immediately think, “Delicious!”
What is teaching and why is it comic? The answer includes many things depending on whether you think of the teacher, the pupil, the means used, or the thing taught. But the type situation is simple and familiar. Think of a human pair teaching their child how to walk. There is, on the child’s side, strong desire and latent powers: he has legs and means to use them. He walks and smiles; he totters and looks alarmed; he falls and cries. The parents smile throughout, showering advice, warning, encouragement, and praise. The whole story, not only of teaching, but of man and civilization, is wrapped up in this first academic performance. It is funny because clumsiness makes us laugh, and touching because undaunted effort strikes a chord of gallantry, and finally comic because it has all been done before and is forever to do again.
Jacques Barzun, Teacher in America
I love Barzun’s description of this scene. That last sentence especially has a definite Chestertonian twang.
Barzun wasn’t the first to capture the poignancy of a child’s first steps. Rembrandt did it, too, in a simple sketch that artist David Hockney called “a perfect drawing.”
The child is being held by her mother and older sister. The mother grips the child firmly, the sister more hesitantly, and Rembrandt observes her looking at the child’s face to see how anxious she is. The lines of her shoulders beautifully indicate this; Rembrandt even turned his pen round and scratched through the ink to emphasise it. It makes me see the child’s face, a hint of worry in it, indicated only by one or two faint marks. One then begins to look at ink, not mothers and sisters, and marks made by a hand, speedily.
The trace of Rembrandt’s hand is still alive. Your eye can go back and forth between brown ink: sister; fast mark: mother. How rewarding this is, to move from the physical surface of the paper to its disappearance when you read the “subject”, and then back again. How many marvellous layers does this drawing have?
The mother has a double profile, Picassoesque. Was it an accident with the pen that he then used as a master would? Both profiles are fascinating about her character. Her skirt is a bit ragged, without any real detail; one seems to know this, and then marvels at how these few lines suggest it. Then, there’s a passing milkmaid, perhaps glancing at a very common scene, and we know the milk pail is full. You can sense the weight. Rembrandt perfectly and economically indicates this with – what? Six marks, the ones indicating her outstretched arm. Very few people could get near this. It is a perfect drawing.
The late Thomas Roche, Jr. was a professor of English at Princeton. I know of him through his book The Kindly Flame, a commentary on Book III of The Faerie Queene. When he died a few months ago, several Princeton scholars assembled their memories of him, and I particularly love this one from Sarah Anderson:
On the day and at the hour, Tom entered the classroom and claimed the students’ attention: he bowed slightly, and he did not so much shrug his cloak from his shoulders, as twirl it slightly, so it reposed perfectly upon a chair. As he read, Spenser’s Merlin gleamed before us. The ligature between all that Tom knew — of Spenser, epic, Neoplatonism, a medieval and a newer world — was simply in Tom’s voice.