I was just twenty-two when I became a teacher. Yet, from my first moment in a classroom, I was struck by my students’ youth, or more precisely by the myriad possibilities they embodied. I was only a few years older than they and my putative adulthood was pretty tenuous. The tie, the tweed jacket, and the new briefcase were meager props, but beneath the costume I was stirred. I might have been a callow imposter, but I quickly came to believe that what we did in that classroom could change my students’ lives—that I could change their lives by illuminating the possibility of others.
I know how this sounds: embarrassing and naïve, even arrogant, but I believed it. I believed that the last lines of The Great Gatsby and Camus’s sensual evocation of the Mediterranean sun and sea might be transporting—that the feelings the words engendered might carry those young men and women away from their own lives and cause them to imagine new ones.
I still believe it and I’ve come to understand how important that youthful impulse has been to me. I know that for four decades I was trying to spark my students’ courage to explore the world: to leave despite powerful impulses to stay. It’s not an easy lesson, particularly when life is so good where you are.
Ironically, I ended my career at a school in one of the most seductive and loveliest places I have ever been, and among the hardest to leave. It’s safe and beautiful and easy—a mountain paradise insulated from the noise and grit of the world. No wonder so many of my students wanted to stay, or to return after their college sojourns. And, no wonder it was so difficult to persuade them (and their parents) that leaving was the most important decision they could make.
I recently spent some time with a person (I’ll call her Vivien) whom I first knew more than fifty years ago. Back then, she was the center of attention among her friends, family, and assorted suitors. Our lives have occasionally touched during the intervening decades, though never for long. When I knew her, Vivien and I were about the age of those first students and seeing her now makes me think of them. She, like they (and most of us), had her icons, her literal and figurative posters on the wall. For most people the posters are a way to imagine other ways of being, and when they’re rolled up and put away real life begins. Vivien’s icons, though, reflected the life she was already living and they yoked her to a drama in which she played the starring role and which, as it turned out, she imagines she is still playing.
Hearing Vivien talk about the same people she talked about fifty years ago, the same friends, the same recycled lovers, seems to me terribly sad. But it has ignited the memory of that first classroom, and has caused me to hope again that at least some of the students who sat there, and at least as many among the generations that followed, sought and found those other worlds that we all talked about with such passion.
Some people stay, of course, and they live full and evolving lives. Others have neither the courage nor the chance to leave; some leave and are miserable. Some leave and return. There is no prescription for a vital life, and there is much to be said for staying where you are and growing old surrounded by family and friends.
But there are, indisputably, other worlds out there, worlds in which people live differently than “here,” worlds in which one can make a life. I believe we should teach our children to seek them.