Farewell, Porter-Gaud Class of 2020

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photo of Class of 2020’s Day of Caring lifted fro Porter-Gaud’s website

I’m distressed that Porter-Gaud’s sterling class of 2020 cannot celebrate publicly the important rite of high school graduation. Last night, they should have donned their flowered dresses and seersucker suits to celebrate baccalaureate at the Church of the Holy Communion on Ashley Avenue. Beforehand, I would have ducked into a nearby bar, Fuel, and consumed two IPAs, then jauntily rounded the corner on foot to greet the progression of faculty members and seniors waiting in front of the church. Everyone would be smiling, the parents proud, the siblings impatient, looking forward to it being over.

Once inside, I would gaze up at the Jesus-of-Color who looks over the congregation from the stained glass behind the altar, listen to the lovely choral music, watch the senior choir members leave the altar and disappear backstage[1] to shed their robes. Then they would reemerge and take their seats with the rest of the graduating class, a transition fraught with emotion. Finally, I would strain my ears to try to catch the homily but undoubtedly fail, my hearing having been destroyed by the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and heredity. The final “amen” would be intoned, the seniors would march out nodding and smiling to the congregation as they headed for the freedom of the late afternoon sunlight, fading, the last few hours of their childhoods fading.

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Church of the Holy Communion

I feel a special connection to this class. They were with me during my late wife’s illness and death. I especially remember teaching a short story to two sections of them as 9th graders on Skype from Houston where Judy was getting consultations, a melancholy prelude to the last weeks of their education.  I also taught three sections of them as sophomores the next year when Judy died.

Porter-Gaud undeservedly has the reputation with some in the community of being  a haven for “a bunch of spoiled rich kids,” but it’s a terrible misrepresentation. Just ask the leaders of Charleston’s charitable organizations. They’ll set you straight. When I returned to school the Wednesday after Judy’s death, all three of the whiteboards in my classroom had been covered with their hand-written condolences and sweetly drawn hearts and musical notes.

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Love manifest.

What a remarkable group of young people, talented in so many different ways. I would love to hear the graduation speeches, discover who has won the academic awards, and watch each receive that hard-earned diploma, but, of course, it’s impossible. Pandemics are indifferent to sentimentality.

A few years ago, our Head of School asked me if I knew of a suitable poem that he might read at graduation, and I suggested this one:

To a Daughter Leaving Home

When I taught you

at eight to ride

a bicycle, loping along

beside you

as you wobbled away

on two round wheels,

my own mouth rounding

in surprise when you pulled

ahead down the curved

path of the park,

I kept waiting

for the thud

of your crash as I

sprinted to catch up,

while you grew

smaller, more breakable

with distance,

pumping, pumping

for your life, screaming

with laughter,

the hair flapping

behind you like a

handkerchief waving

goodbye.

—Linda Pastan

 

I know they’ll be fine. They’ll certainly get over this disappointment – even make wry jokes about it  – but I did want to honor them in some small way and to let them know that I wish I could say goodbye in person and that they will not be forgotten.


[1] Bad role model that I am, I’m too lazy to look up the correct ecclesiastical term. PS. Update, a friend of mine who is a priest has enlightened me: “In ecclesiastical terms, they left the sanctuary via the sacristy and chapel and re-entered the nave to be seated with their classmates. ” Hat tip to Brian McGreevy.

In Memory of Erica Lesesne

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Erica Lesesne 1945-2020

I first met Erica in August of 1985 at a school leadership conference; she immediately impressed me with her eloquence and presence. Although “from off,” Erica came to Charleston as a pilgrim, embracing the city’s Otherness rather than criticizing its eccentricity. I dare say that few scholars anywhere know as much about Charleston writers such as Beatrice Ravenel, Josephine Pinckney, and DuBose Heyward as Erica did. A few years ago, we collaborated on creating a course for adults on the literary movement known as “The Charleston Renaissance,” and although our efforts came to naught, I learned so much about Charleston’s literary legacy from working with her on the project. She was forever a teacher.

Although it’s sometimes easier for a teacher to pretend that she just doesn’t see, whenever Erica encountered bullying, student backbiting, or the twisting of truth for personal advantage, she directly confronted the offender, expressing her displeasure rationally, calmly (and with serious eye contact). On the other hand, Erica championed talented students who had acquired the reputation of being troublemakers. As I put it in the speech I delivered upon her retirement, “Erica possesses that admirable talent of being able to discern whatever diamonds may be lurking somewhere beneath the layers of mud adolescents sometimes coat themselves with. She inspired these rebels to consider the world at large as she cultivated their creativity, channeling their anger and angst into art.”  How life affirming to have a wise woman as an advocate, someone who understands your youthful dissatisfaction with a wounded world. It can be life-changing.

Drama was Erica’s favorite genre, and over the years she orchestrated a number of superb student-directed productions, plays in which actors performed without microphones, having to project their voices throughout the acoustically challenged spaces of Gwenette Auditorium.  She carefully chose each play according to the abilities of the senior class who performed them, on one occasion writing a script herself. More often, however, she selected plays of high literary merit, exposing students and adults to the joys of commedia de arte or the absurdities of Pirandello. I remember Jeannie Faircloth Green, the superb math teacher, leaning over to me during an intermission and remarking that “after five minutes, you forget it’s a student production.”

Erica play

Ultimately, however, teachers earn their pay in the classroom. As our mentor Sue Chanson has said, an excellent English teacher can teach at any level. Throughout her career, Erica taught sixth graders, and seniors, and grades in between, introducing them to Pip and Estella via Dickens, touring the Lake District with Wordsworth and Coleridge, guiding well-to-do eighteen-year-olds through the impoverished, labyrinthian streets of Dostoyevsky’s St. Petersburg. She taught impressionable souls how language functions, how it can sing  — or screech — and how to manipulate words to convey melody or cacophony according to the writer’s purpose. Being able to string sweet sounds together to embody devotion is a valuable skill, but being able to rat-a-tat Anglo-Saxon plosives that spit like machine gun fire can also come in handy. Porter-Gaud’s reputation as a school that produces superb writers owes an enormous debt to Erica Lesesne, who had a hand in creating the English Department’s curriculum. And, oh, the hours she spent carefully assessing writing, circling misplaced modifiers, bracketing fragments, praising deft phraseology and clear thinking. Each student, handled with care. Taken seriously.

Erica Lesesne lived a good life and has left a legacy that will live on, not only in the memory of her devoted family —  Dan, Emma, and Daniel, their spouses, and their children —  but also in the memories of a generation of students who were so very lucky to have her as a teacher. For the sake of our own children, let’s hope the cliché  “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” isn’t true.

Good night, sweet Erica.

 

Time’s Winged Educational Chariot

tumblr_m5hcfaWVuu1qbyk5qo1_500This marks the fourth year of my teaching second-generation students – the sons and daughters of students I taught the in 1980’s.

It’s somewhat surreal – I was 32 when I stumbled into my first class of high school students, never having taught adolescents before. My teaching experience came from Trident Technical College, a community college that offers vocational training and some associate degree programs. There, many of my students were my age and older, some of them Viet Nam vets who certainly knew much more than I did about certain facts of life.

Classroom management was never a problem, except for that one night in a Developmental Studies class when a young blonde-haired man showed up drunk and red-eyed and started hitting on women in the back of the classroom. At the break, I mentioned to him he couldn’t come to class stoned, and he assured me that the red glazed look in his eyes came from welding all day. Nevertheless, he agreed to quit hitting on the woman.

No, classroom management wasn’t a problem at Tech; the problem there lay in that many students lacked basic academic skills, and I became a decent developmental studies teacher because I came up with some mechanical steps that students could follow in constructing sentences so that their writing wouldn’t mirror their speech.

If a student wrote, “My sister eat at her boyfriend house,” I’d have him find the verb.

“Who eat?” I’d ask.

“Sister.”

Then I’d have him plug in a pronoun for the subject. If the pronoun was “he,” “she,” or, “it,” the verb needed an “s”; if the pronoun was “they,” no “s.” Getting him to add an apostrophe “s” for the possessive was a more difficult task, but that was merely a 2-point error versus the 10-point subject/verb disagreement deduction. The final exam consisted of writing a 150-word paragraph with fewer than 30 points of grammatical or mechanical errors. If he passed, he could go on to enter the small engine repair or welding certificate program or take classes for an associate degree.

The vast majority of these students wanted to better themselves, many were receiving GI bill checks, so getting them to pay attention wasn’t a problem. Although the job wasn’t intellectually stimulating, it was rewarding. I felt as if the Dalai Lama would approve.

I-and-I in my 1985 annual photo

I-and-I in my 1985 annual photo

Fastforward to 1985, my first class of seniors at Porter-Gaud. I asked each on that first day to introduce herself and tell me a little about herself and discovered that among these young scholars sat a “cocaine dealer,” a “Soviet spy,” etc. Whenever one of them offered one of these puerile bits of misinformation, the class erupted in gales of laughter as if Robin Williams stood before them performing a monologue.

The good news is that I was able to rein them in fairly quickly with a couple of scathing, sarcastic counterpunches. No, my problem here was not a lack of academic ability but roiling hormones and the unsettling fact that many of these students were much more intelligent than I when it came to brain circuitry.

The good news is that I was profoundly hipper and knew my stuff when it came to literature and writing. By the end of the year, I hated to see them go.

Next year will mark the 30th year since they graduated from high school, and to me, as I tumble faster and faster down the Great Hour Glass’s avalanche, it seems as if just last month my mother was preparing to go to her 30th high school reunion!

So here I am at the same school teaching the second generation, who are taller and better behaved (but less worldly and mature) than their progenitors, and it’s really eerie how much they can look alike, virtual doppelgängers in some cases.

I do my best not to show them favoritism, but it’s hard.

And to be truthful, I’m feeling the tug of time, feel like Yeats that old age has been tied to me “as a dog’s tail.” I get the feeling that some of the students think of me as ancient, the way they once thought of Blackburn Hughes, a colleague who was the age I am now when I first started teaching, and that it might be easy to pull something on me, the old coot. Even a couple of colleagues occasionally make playful cracks about my age, facetiously asking if I would like to join the faculty track team to challenge the students.

I-and-I at graduation in 2014

I-and-I at graduation in 2014

The good news is that I’m still hipper than these 30-something whippersnappers (where were they when I saw Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee perform in the bar where I worked, the Sonny Terry who played with Woody Guthrie on such songs as “Hard Traveling” “Bow Weevil Blues,” and “We Shall Be Free?) and I still know my lit and writing shit, so why not keep on another year or two despite the great demoralization of the bureaucratic technocracy that rules 21st century education, despite the irritating intrusion of a few arrogant fathers and snippy mothers, whom I certainly could teach a thing or two.

What shall I do with this absurdity—
O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog’s tail?

Yeats, “The Tower”