In an age of despair over the state of public education, Mark Edmundson's memoir serves as a testimony to the magic that can occur even in the least inspired of school settings when the right teacher meets a receptive student.
At the moment Mr. Edmundson met teacher Frank Lears, however, neither appeared to be a likely candidate for a tale of academic redemption. In "Teacher" (Random House), Edmundson writes of this meeting:
"When I first encountered Franklin Lears, I was a high school thug. I was a football player, a brawler, who detested all things intellectual. The first time I saw this meager guy with his thick, swinging briefcase, I wanted to spit on the floor. He was absurd, a joke. If you had told me that in eight months I would have decided to live my life in a way that was akin to his, I would have told you that you were crazy."
Yet that's precisely the path Edmundson chose, one that eventually led to a professorship at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
"He showed great confidence in the idea that reading books could give a better life to you and the people around you," Edmundson recalls. "We had never met someone who was so open-minded and tolerant and thoughtful and responsive and such a good listener, and it was obvious that this had something to do with the books he had read."
What Edmundson ultimately came to admire most about his teacher was that rather than preaching to the class or nagging his students to read, he simply lived his own example. He demonstrated that books had brought him an unusual measure of freedom and dominion, despite his unimpressive physical appearance.
"It wasn't that books would help you earn money or make you smarter or give you social cachet," Edmundson says, trying to recap the lessons that hit him so hard as a teenager. "It was that you would feel the difference in productivity and energy and humor."
These were not ideas that had ever reached Edmundson as he was growing up in Medford, Mass., a working-class suburb of Boston that he describes as "sad, somnolent." His high school, he felt, valued repetition and form over any actual notion of learning.
But Lears (not his real name) arrived at the school as an outsider with his own way of doing things. He announced that he would teach a philosophy course, and then midway through the course he tossed away the textbook.
It was 1969, and the way Lears proceeded was clearly influenced by the period. He assigned books like Camus's "The Stranger," Hesse's "Siddhartha," and Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." He held classes outdoors or allowed students to sit in unassigned seats in a circle. He invited guest speakers such as members of the radical group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
But the rebellious and free-flowing spirit of the 1960s had not yet reached Medford, so these innovations took Lears's students by surprise. What shook them most were the questions he presented in class, and the gentle way he continually challenged the conformist mentality to which most of them subscribed.
Even the students who didn't do the reading and apparently many didn't were drawn in by the new worldviews presented in class.
Yet the man shaking them up was anything but hip. Lears wore a moth-eaten suit two sizes too large over his hunched shoulders and sported shoes that Edmundson thought of as the "Monitor" and the "Merrimack." He initially appealed to his students as an easy target for torment.
Unlike some touching stories of teachers who transform students' lives, this one did not involve a personal bond. The students knew only that Lears was a fresh graduate of Harvard University in Cambridge which was nearby but a world away.
Ultimately they learned that this would be his only year as a teacher and that he would then leave for law school. Why he taught them, what motivated him, or what he thought or felt about them all remained unknown.
To this day, Edmundson has had no further contact with the teacher who changed his life, although he hopes someday to find him. He says Lears surely knew his course touched Edmundson, but probably could never have guessed that he inspired his former student to begin reading hungrily, to apply to a four-year instead of a two-year college, and to eventually do graduate work in English at Yale University.
As a teacher, Edmundson says he tries to pass Lears's gift on to his students, asking them questions that may shake them but will also cause them to reflect on literature more deeply.
Lears may have fought the conformity he perceived in his students, but Edmundson says that today, breaking the hold of consumerism is the larger challenge. "They've had it slammed into them that they're here to prepare for a lucrative career," he says. He wants his teaching to help them see classes and books as a road to self-knowledge, not just a ticket to a better job.
As for his book, Edmundson can't help thinking of himself as a teen and saying wistfully, "My fondest hope is that a couple of high school kids will read it and say, 'Hey, I could go that route.' "