"A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops."
- Henry Brooks Adams 1838-1918.I stopped for a few minutes at the top of the stairway and watched them - hundreds of them - coming and going through the labyrinthine corridors of Viewmont High (no minor feat in itself), bent on the business of education.
And I was there to teach, to take part in that marvelous process by which one individual transfers information to another. It was, in all honesty, a humbling thought.
Davis School District Superintendent Rich Kendell, Viewmont Principal Paul Waite and teachers Ron Johansen and Ken Zeeman made it possible.
As Deseret News education editor for three-plus years, I've visited many schoolrooms and even taught in a few as a guest journalist, but this was the first time I'd had full responsibility for a class.
I had claimed - right aloud - that I thought I could do it. And on the first day, here were the makings for the "proof," waiting to be mixed into pudding - more than 30 junior students. It seemed a great number from my perspective at the front of the class.
The topic on Johansen's agenda for this English class was "The Crucible," Arthur Miller's complex and compelling play about the Salem witch hunts of the late 1600s. I'd read it. But I read it again, several times. As an adult and a literature buff of long standing, I understood the nuances and sometimes obscure motivations that launched Salem's townfolk on a course that led inexorably to disaster.
Having lived through the 1950s McCarthy "witch hunt" for communists in America - including the accusations against Miller and his appearances before a congressional committee on un-American activities - I also understood where he was coming from when he wrote the play.
Now all I had to do was explain that to the young man in the fifth row who came in, put his head down on the desk and was, from all appearances, asleep.
One of my assumptions going into this experiment was that experience in the "real world" would provide fuel for classroom discussions. It did.
I was able to use Deseret News files to copy pictures of Miller, including some with his one-time wife, movie star Marilyn Monroe. Also, on the second day of class, a wire story came across my desk that recounted a current California court case in which a woman was being accused of involving her daughter and granddaughter in satanistic rituals.
That story brought the concept of witchcraft closer to the 1990s and triggered a discussion of the evolution of America's courts to protect the rights of the accused - a protection sadly lacking in 17th century Salem.
Viewmont is on the block schedule. Providing a change of pace during hour-and-a-half classes was one of the demands. After a half hour of "The Crucible," we moved on to a discussion of Ralph Waldo Emerson's writings - And a whole new challenge for this temporary teacher.
I found myself up against the difficulty of helping 1991 adolescents understand a writer whose transcendental philosophies and writing style require hard work, even for dyed-in-the-wool literature enthusiasts. After analyzing his poem "Brahma," I felt I may have stumbled. I understood the concepts but wasn't sure I had made them understandable to my students.
We ended class with a writing assignment that Johansen had asked me to pass along - the first piece of an ongoing project he had developed to have students write a brief personal history, culminating with a statement of their own philosophy - forcing them, of course, to search themselves for that philosophy. Great idea. Wish I'd thought of it.
One of my great frustrations during the two days I spent at Viewmont was not knowing names - a distinct disadvantage. A pointing finger and a generic "you," were highly unsatisfactory ways to communicate with these teenagers.
In one of Zeeman's journalism classes I had a teacher's dream - 10 highly able students, recruited in most cases from an advanced-placement English class, he said.
I knew I'd hit gold when we launched right into a discussion of the school prayer controversy as a prelude to an exercise in opinion writing. I only had to feed them some basic thoughts regarding the fundamental collision between rights of free speech and the mandatory separation of church and state and they were off. I became a mere facilitator for their thinking.
When I asked them to write a short editorial defending one side of the prayer issue, I thought their work was outstanding. With 10 students in the class, we could discuss most of their essays individually. I know that isn't the norm for Utah classes. When I asked them to reverse their position and write an editorial on the other side of the issue, they did just as well and, I hope, had learned that the best way to write strong opinion pieces is to thoroughly understand all of the arguments.
However, if I'd had to spend an evening grading papers from the classes I taught, I might well have changed my perspective on how many assignments to make.
I also did not have to deal with a discipline problem or a troubled child, a parent concern, grading, advising an activity, interacting with other teachers, supervising the lunch room or the ongoing grind of being ready for several classes every day.
I put a lot of time and effort into trying to make my two days at Viewmont succeed. ) I'm not certain I could put the same energy into teaching as an ongoing commitment.
Even so, I believe that I could become a capable teacher over time, with the help of a good mentor. I have great faith in the "apprenticeship" approach to career preparation because that's how I became a journalist.
Zeeman's comments on the time I spent in his classes were mostly positive.
"I have no doubt but what you could be an effective journalism teacher if you were to enter the teaching profession this fall," he wrote in a summary of the experience.
At the same time, he was concerned that in a critique of the school newspaper I had identified particular writers when I pointed out weaknesses. Understanding how sensitive young writers are (as compared with career journalists who constantly and critically review each others' work) was something I needed to know. I might or might not have learned that in college, but a mentor could certainly have told me - and did.
I also asked the students in Johansen's English class to write a brief comment on their perceptions of this guest teacher. The majority were positive, with such comments as "I think you did a good job of teaching . . . come back some time." "You were well prepared with extra articles and posters that made it more interesting. I learned quite a bit."
But one young man was not happy.
"I thought the past few days were the longest class periods on earth. It was so dull I found myself watching the clock and counting the seconds. . . therefore, you were a teacher. All teachers are like that."
Now, that's the student I'd like to have another try at. Somehow, there must be a way to turn him on to literature. I'm sorry I failed.