Monday, August 24, 2009

The Three Muses

Trillium and I had the opportunity to be in the company of one of the icons of the College of Humanities last Thursday. Richard G. Ellsworth served in the English Department while I was working on my Bachelors and Masters degrees at Brigham Young University. After completing the purpose for the which we spent an hour and a half with him, our conversation turned to another of the faculty members with whom I had had a close working relationship. I was saddened to hear that he had died a year ago, that I had been unaware of his funeral. I would have liked to have attended. For the last few days I have given thought to the great teachers in my life, those who had shaped my own teaching style. Three immediately came to mind.

Dean Bruington taught music in Chino, California, first in the whole city school system and then later only at the High School. I took my first lessons in the clarinet from Mr. Bruington during the fourth grade at Richard Gird Elementary School. I have no idea how long it took me to get passed the rather odious sounds that a neophyte woodwind player makes on his way to limited proficiency. The extraordinary thing of it was that Mr. Bruington tolerated all of it, from all of us, for the next three years. I am certain that we had concerts, perhaps the parents came to them, perhaps the students at the school came. I remember none of it. I suppose that neither the parents nor the students really wanted to either. No doubt hope sprang eternal and they all anticipated that by the time we all went to the Junior High School, more than passing progress would have been made.

I remember that there was a music room for the band and orchestra at the Junior High, which was a tremendous improvement over the cafeteria at the elementary school. Whereas in the cafeteria we sounded like we were playing in a cavern, in the band room we were able to focus every musical error right into our own ears. Junior High was a desperate time for teenagers passing through the early stages of puberty and the music was not helping a lot. At the High School, the music facilities were housed in their own building very far away from the rest of the academic buildings and twice as far from the sports complex. It was a new campus and the Board of Education had anticipated the arrival of all those they had heard in the cafeteria during the previous five years.

Mr. Bruington, however, had confidence in us. We were a small school, with a marching band of about seventy or so, an orchestra of about sixty, and a swing band of about twenty-five. I played either clarinet or tenor saxophone in the three main venues. In the concert band (which was what the marching band was called when it wasn’t moving), I sat in the first chair of the front row just to the left hand of Mr. Bruington while he conducted us. I have to say that while I was a pretty good clarinetist, good tone and control, I was not particularly gifted in the ability to sight read. I would go home with new music and try to figure out what was going on with the notes on the page and usually failed miserably. On those days when we were to practice the piece for the first time, I would sit in my chair, scrunched down a bit, and would fake my part for a while as the rest of the band blithely went their own way. Eventually, I would hear that which I should be doing and then I usually could play it perfectly. I played clarinet by ear. Mr. Bruington tolerated that for about five weeks in my first semester as a Freshman. I remember vividly the day my formula for faking my way through rehearsal came to an end. The band was at full throttle, I was whimpering my way through the fingering of the new piece, when suddenly Dean Bruington stopped everyone with a wave of his baton. He looked down from the podium and said, “Zaphod, I can’t hear you. I can hear every other person in this room, even ones that I really would rather not hear, and yet though you are seated just two feet from my ears, there doesn’t appear to be anything happen with that instrument of yours.”

The eyes of the other sixty-nine members of the band were focused on me. I explained that I had spent hours practicing, trying to figure out what I should be playing, but had not been able to work it out.

“So you thought that by not playing that you would somehow be contributing to the success of the band.”

I said that must be it. Fourteen year olds will agree to just about anything when everyone in the room is looking at them. Then Dean Bruington said something to me that went down into my heart like fire.

“Zaphod, listen to me well. If you play so that I can’t hear you, I can’t help you get any better. Play your mistakes loud, own up to them, and then I can help you get it right.” The next three years were glorious.

When I came home from Mexico and began my schooling at Brigham Young, the first religion class that I took was from a fellow named Ivan J. Barrett. My practice in all of my classes was to sit in the front row of the classroom slightly to the left of the podium, a hangover, I suppose, from my days as a clarinetist. Ivan was the most dynamic teacher I had ever met. He was constantly in motion, stalking the front section of the room like a tiger in a cage. He had a habit of demonstrating aspects of the lesson with his person. If the subject of the day’s lesson involved a prophet standing on the wall of a city and condemning the inhabitants thereof, he would jump up on the top of the table where his notes were and begin shouting at us, pointing his finger at us one by one, as he called us all to repentance. I vaguely remember him throwing something at someone at the back of the room who had fallen asleep, but that may have been in my health class where the teacher was far less dynamic.

Ivan J. Barrett was a short fellow with the body structure of Lou Costello, but with none of Lou’s self-depreciating shyness. Frequently, as he was marching up and down next to the front row, he would propound a stimulating question or make a stunning declaration of some kind about the passage of scripture that we were reviewing and then point to one of the students in the third or fourth row and say, “What do you think about that, Brother Jones? Hmmm?” For the first few weeks there was generally a marked silence in the room, everyone holding their breath to see if Steven Jones could come up with an answer that would satisfy Brother Barrett. Someone trapped beneath that penetrating glance of Ivan’s eye generally reacted as if they were an insect that had just been mounted in a collection. The front row seemed to be exempt… for a while. I remember that on many an occasion after the first month, Ivan Barrett would pause directly in front of my chair and skewer someone a few rows back, point his finger, ask his question, wait for the response, and then when everyone was preparing to relax he would drop his eyes to mine and bellow, “Oh? Interesting! What do you think of Brother Shepherd’s answer, Brother Beeblebrox?” And then he would grill me for three or four minutes about my opinion, with a bit of whimsy playing on his lips and a sparkle in his eyes. I never fell asleep in his class even though it was just after lunch and there was no air conditioning in the room.

In my own teaching, I picked up not a few of Ivan’s mannerisms, the misdirected glance being one of my favorites. I brought into my pedagogical style a lot of his flamboyance and I think that my students rather enjoyed it, for the most part. I remember once, though, that someone in one of the groups I had been teaching came up to me afterwards and said with a bit of a huff in her voice, “You sounded just like a Baptist preacher!” I had not been trying to be just like a Baptist preacher; I had known a lot of Baptist preachers growing up and none of them had ever inspired me to teach like they did. I guess that I was the next best thing; I was a Barrettist preacher. I think that Ivan would have just laughed out loud at the suggestion that he taught like a Baptist minister.

When I began my Masters program in the English Department at Brigham Young University, I was given John Edward McKendrick as my Chairman. I think that I took every subject that he ever taught at the University. I met with him frequently in his office as I was approaching my defense and the completion of the rest of the requirements for the degree. There were three things that were particularly unnerving about Jack McKendrick’s office. First, there was hardly any room to negotiate pedestrian travel in his office. Almost all of the floor, the entire desk and all furniture, save for two chairs, were always filled with piles of papers, books, and other detritus so that the visit was always accompanied by an impending doom, a potential flood of printed works, an ineluctable wave of wood pulp. Richard Ellsworth said that he himself was afraid to go in there without some sort of flotation device. The second point of intimidation was that on the back of the office door there was mounted a full-sized color photograph of Bela Lugosi dressed as Dracula with a caption that said, “I vant to bite yourrr neck!!!!” I seldom looked at that door while visiting with Jack, but the terror was almost as bad facing in the opposite direction.

Professor McKendrick did have one piece of furniture that was entirely unencumbered with student papers or books. He had a low stand, within arm’s reach, upon which was a Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged). As we would talk about my various projects, from time to time he would hold up his hand and say, “Just a moment, Mr. Beeblebrox, I want to check something.” He would then mutter something in relation to a word that I had just used in the conversation and open “The Dictionary”, run his finger down a couple of columns until he had found what he was looking for. “Hmmmm!” he would say with his back to me, “It seems that you have escaped this time!” Then he would turn back to me with exactly that same expression that I knew was on the picture behind me. The first couple of times this happened to me, I was almost beside myself with fear. After a couple of weeks of this, however, I was so depleted in adrenaline that when he did it to me again, I just started to giggle, and then to laugh right out loud. He laughed right along with me and for the first time I knew that Jack McKendrick was on my side and that he did not want me to fear the system that I had become a part of. He frequently caught me on my use of words, but, as it had been with Dean Bruington, I never made the same mistake twice.

All three of my great mentors have passed away: first, Dean Bruington many years ago, then Ivan Barrett on the 16th of August 1999, and finally Jack McKendrick a year ago, almost to the day. I miss them and grieve a little because I did not know when they passed out of this life. I think that I would have liked to have said goodbye before they were put underground. Some of what they were, however, lives on in me when I have occasion to teach. I hope that there are some of my students who may remember some of my borrowed mannerisms, and be inclined to implement and perpetuate the same, not for my sake, but for the sake of students everywhere.

8 comments:

Katscratchme said...

I think some of that lively teaching style would have come in handy during our Family Home Evenings when your children were young. I don't seem to recall anything like that when you were home. (Aside from the pithy jokes that abounded at dinner time.)

Zaphod said...

I was merciful to you all. It takes a lot of young adult stamina to be able to endure much of IJB's style of teaching. Be grateful that I didn't pick up any of my health teacher's bad habits.

shydandelion said...

I can think of one person who would probably show up at your funeral...Clad in a Gandalf the Grey costume. I think that he was the only man you EVER told me under no circumstances must I associate with (I won't mention names just in case he blog stalks you).
Well, if nothing else, you will have five former students go to your funeral. I think the only people who missed out on your religion classes were Becky and Jenny, but I could be wrong.

Zaphod said...

Both Becky and Jenny drove to USC while I was there to attend the night classes that I taught. I know Jenny did and I think that Becky came with her.

shydandelion said...

Hey! There you go! All seven children who were also formal students. You will have a very efficient funeral. :) Maybe the presiding bishop will also be your son, and the hearse will be from a family business (volunteers, anyone?). I bet Jeremy could construct some sort of metalic coffin made from old car parts--which would be fitting considering the hemachromatosis...and by then we could have your back yard zoned for a burial spot! And then you would never have to leave the house! I bet I could make you up real perty, that way we wouldn't have to pay a mortitian to do your make-up. :D

shydandelion said...

And since we have a family band, you wouldn't have to hire out for post-funeral festivities. Becky and Victor could cook everything (authentic Mexican food, you know, reminicent of your missionary days). Wow! This is going to be fun! Well, not for you, but who is the funeral really for anyway?

shydandelion said...

OH, and since Andy knows how to clean animals, we can have him clean you out, and we can just pour in some formaldahyde. And since Mom knows how to make leper bandages we can wrap you in those, perhaps give you an Egyptian burial...and I have plenty of crochet hooks to pull your brain out your nose. You DO have canopic jars somewhere, don't you?

Zaphod said...

I think that someone has too much time on their hands.