MOOCs are slated to transform it, once corporations like Coursera decide how to “monetize” Massive Open Online Courses and once they figure out how to polish the rough assessment edges on peer review as a way of grading stuff that can’t be done via Scantron without having to pay teachers to (for example) read a paper. So in the brave new world, students will watch recorded lectures of famous professors–say from MIT, a MOOC pioneer–then work their own way through the reading, take tests, and earn credit toward a degree at a steep discount. University profits should soar because the inconvenience of having to hire faculty, or support bricks-and-mortar campuses, will fade. Lest you think this is some far-off sci-fi future, I will note that Bill Gates’ foundation is funding the effort, and that it will be marketed as democratization and accessibility, and that poor people will flock to its open door. But at what cost?
If someone changed your life, if someone believed in you before you believed in yourself, if someone inspired you to learn or to think or to hope, that someone was probably a teacher–and most likely a high school or community college English teacher, working in the trenches of real life, learning the names and faces and dreams of a few hundred students every term, and often keeping in touch with students over the course of a lifetime. This is the kind of higher education that no MOOC will ever deliver, let alone be able to assess.
Out of the blue, I got a message on my machine from my high school English teacher, whose name is, improbably, Ideale. I am sixty-five years old, and even though I’ve been in touch with him only a handful of times since we met at Hamilton High School in 1960, he is one of the most important people in my life–possibly the most important, if I consider the developmental aspects of what he taught me about life and about myself. Our conversations, decades apart, always begin with “I don’t know if you’ll remember me…”; of course I remember him, but the amazing thing is that he remembers me. “You were one of my best students,” he always says–and I soak it up like water in a drought, even though I suspect that every student he talks to makes that A list.
“I found some of your writing, and that drawing you sent me,” he says, “and I wondered how you’re doing. People from all over the world have been coming to visit me,” he adds, with that amazed delight that was always his default response to anything that happened to him. I remember he once told us in World Literature class that the course of his life had been altered when he was our age by falling in love with his wife, Sonia. “I would have become a juvenile delinquent without her,” he tells us, “but instead, I became the man she wanted me to be.” Then, in a moment of inspiration that would be stifled in today’s classrooms, he gazes out the window and tells us, “she had breasts like ripe peaches,” his Italian hands helplessly demonstrating what it felt like to reach for them.
They married at seventeen, I think, and when I asked him the over the phone the other day how Sonia is, he said, “Perfect! She’s always been perfect!” and I can hear his mouth shape into a perfect, glorious smile as he says it. Then he tells me, “Robert flew in–from Princeton! He’s friends with Noam Chomsky,” he adds, laughing. “He liked you, you know.”
“I know,” I say, thinking, my God–how does he remember even his students’ romantic interests, and picturing what my retirement years would look like if I had married Robert in high school. “Tell him I regret that I didn’t reciprocate,” I say, laughing too.
“You should come see me,” Ideale says, and I tell him I’m broke. “I’ll pay for your ticket,” he offers, and I know he means it, even if he says it to everyone. “There’s room for you here.”
“I’ll come if I can,” I say, knowing that I won’t, because I couldn’t bear to see him, because my heart begins to suspect why he’s really called me and is breaking because it’s suddenly clear that he cares enough about me–how does he even remember me!–to let me know that he will be moving on soon.
“How are you?” I say, and he tells me what a wonderful life he’s had, how perfect his two children are, how much he loved his forty years of teaching. He tells me how dismayed he still is by religion, and I smile to myself because this man is the most perfect representative of faith, hope and charity I have ever known; he’s obviously still up on current events because he asks me that the hell “legitimate rape” is, and I can picture him shaking his head. He’s been reading a seven hundred page biography of Mark Twain.
I ask him how old he is, and he says, laughing again, “eighty-six.” I photoshop the mental image I have, adding some Einstein white hair to the forty-year-old I knew who drove a motorcycle to school and parked it under the flag pole in some kind of effort at political balance.
“You should come see me,” he says again, “and don’t wait too long.” This is the part I’ve been afraid to hear, but I try to follow his rational lead as I brace for what I know is coming. He laughs as he adds, “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around–there are a lot of tumors.”
“Are you in treatment?” I ask, and he tells me no, there are too many this time. I tell him I will write to him, that I’ve become a teacher myself, that my life feels like maybe it counts for something at last.
“It’s a wonderful life,” he says, like a benediction. There is only joy in his voice–no trace of fear or regret.
How much longer will teachers like Ideale Gambera be around in your life, or your childrens’, once “higher education” is downsized and redefined to exclude human relationships?
This is what I wrote to Ideale:
I remember when Disa was maybe three or four—the same age I was when my father disappeared from my life—I came to your house one night, no doubt with some incoherent question strangled in my introverted soul, some need for guidance or more likely restraint, no doubt about some idiot I was about to get involved with. I remember coming to you without knowing why, with only a young woman’s vague sense of carrying a powerful current too strong for her body, feeling it lash inside of her like a live wire in a storm in need of being grounded.
I remember you were sitting in your living room chair, talking about the importance of living the examined life while your own daughter carefully peeled off one of your socks, looking up at you slyly with her saucer eyes so like your own. You didn’t make it easy for her, or hard. You kept holding forth about Socrates, with one dark sock puddling around your bare ankle and an elvish smile on the face of your daughter, the future scholar of medieval feminism. I remember how the current from father to daughter and back again lit up the room with unspoken delight, as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
I remember taking various guys to meet you during the handful of times I saw you after high school, and I remember you coming to my house, incredibly, that one time when I was in my forties, and meeting my latest husband. They never measured up, and your presence made that suddenly, achingly, clear as a pain in the chest that I tried to dismiss as unrelated to heart disease. The attacks followed, though, and in retrospect, trying to heal, I was always grateful for the warnings that the contrast of your presence provided, even though I could not recognize them in time.
You never met the one man who loved me more than himself, who lived an examined life even as Parkinson’s disease claimed it. You would have liked Jay’s father, and he would have respected—in a wise man’s impersonal way—how you took our son under your wing, briefly, that one time in Eugene. It only takes one instance of enlightened witness to break the grip of this heartless Dickensian world, or so claims Alice Miller. I remember how, hearing that the new step-family had disowned my nine-year-old boy, you went upstairs in my fairy-tale house and woke him up to tell him he was invited to yours, anytime, and to Tahoe too, whenever he wanted to come. You told him to remember that, and he still does, more than twenty years later.
I remember how you have always loved people in your path indiscriminately, fully, generously, as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
I remember that you believed in me, inexplicably, all along, and that you also—incredibly—remembered me.
I want you to know that your gift of recognition is still an unexpected grace in my life, and I want you to know that I have at last done something worthwhile with it. You said that my forties and fifties would be the most productive time of my life; as always, I am behind the curve—but in the end, I have become that English teacher who, like you, makes a difference in my students’ lives. At least that’s what they tell me. Like you, I teach community college students to live an examined life, even when what they must examine is difficult. I will attach something I wrote about that and read in one of my classes the other day.
My writing is the lover I bring to your door now, hoping not so much for approval as for completion of the circuit, hoping to give back some vision of what you have given me.
Thank you for having loved me.
I have loved you too, and always will.