As the father of a fourth grader and a sixth grader, I have learned to take the reports my children offer about school with a grain of salt. Occasionally, my children lie. At other times, they embellish and exaggerate. They do a slapdash job paraphrasing the words of others. They add details and nuances they wish were true. Their summaries often leave out significant facts.
Parent: How was school?
Student: Fine. How was your day?
Parent: Fine. What happened at school?
Student: Subjects, lunch. Same stuff that happens every day.
Parent: You always give rather vague answers when I ask about school.
Student: That’s because the questions you ask are rather vague.
Parent: I asked what happened at school. How is that vague?
Student: I answered, didn’t I? Subjects, lunch.
Parent: A two-word answer?
Student: For a four-word question.
The kind of mistakes you make in your first year of teaching are almost entirely unavoidable. Fate decrees that every rookie teacher must stick his foot in his mouth a dozen times, get accustomed to the taste of crow, and often remark to himself angrily, “Won’t do that again.” Such moments endear a man to his profession, though, because they show him that teaching is not merely the transfer of knowledge from one brain to another, but a ballet which requires academic, social, and psychological acumen.
Parent: Given the profound importance of recent events, I wondered what changes you planned on making to your curriculum for the coming year.
Gibbs: That’s a question traditionalists have been asked for over two hundred years now. Ever since the French Revolution, there has been an endless succession of “profoundly important recent events” that are supposed to make people like me give up teaching old books.
Parent: That sounds a little sarcastic.
Parent: Now that my son is attending a classical school, is it fair to expect great things of him?
Gibbs: What do you mean by “great”?
Parent: I’m not asking if he’s going to become a senator or a CEO. I know classical educators conceive of greatness more broadly and deeply than that. But will my son climb Mount Everest? Will a classical education make him want to do such things? Will it make him want to write a novel? Is it fair to expect a classical education will make my son an interesting person?
Gibbs: Do you know some uninteresting people?
The following thoughts are intended for fellow teachers, but others might benefit from listening in.
Conservatives and progressives tend to have predictable opinions on gun control, marriage, and taxes, but why? What philosophical principles and theological convictions underwrite modern political opinions? A lamentable number of modern Christians assume the fundamental break between conservatives and progressives occurred over the issue of personal freedom. However, great books of the 18th and 19th century show us the break was far more complex and involved rival philosophies of time, nature, beauty, and human fulfillment.
Parent: Can we talk about Jeff’s literature grade?
Gibbs: Of course.
Parent: He’s been putting so much time into your class. He works so long and so hard on these essays for you and he’s discouraged by the fact his grade on this upcoming report card is probably going to be a B.
Gibbs: Why is he discouraged?
Parent: He just doesn’t know what he needs to do to get an A.
Gibbs: I’ve given him feedback on the essays he’s written thus far. Was the feedback not clear?
The first time a young teacher fields a complaint from an angry parent about their child’s grades is a formative experience. Actually, “formative” doesn’t begin to cover it. It is more like the moment Zeus had to choose between two different piles of meat— bones overlaid in fat, or choice cuts wrapped in offal— and the pile he chose became the divine portion forever, while the other pile became mankind’s eternal lot in the sacrificial system.