Heartfelt sympathies to Phil on the loss of his grandmother, who was obviously quite a person to reckon with. I wasn’t able to get the link to play beyond Phil’s 9-year-old voice, but I enjoyed the comment that his grandmother took him seriously during her “interview.” This reminds me of the exchange between the son of old friends of ours—the boy was at this time a highly energetic, jabbering three-year-old or so—and visiting elderly lady. It was time for dessert. The boy turned to the lady and said, “Sorbet is very cold, you know.” To which the lady—all glory upon her head—answered gravely, “I’ve heard that, too.” Beyond the smile-inducing anecdote, though, is something worth reflecting on.
We’ve all heard the comment about there being no such thing as a stupid question. I, of course, believe there certainly is, but it should only be brought up when the interlocutor really needs a wake-up call, is being deliberately insulting, or trivial. How deep do we have to reach, though, when teaching Music Appreciation or the Music History sequence, to take every question soberly and seriously? Through high school and college, my tongue, insults, and sarcasm were feared by a lot of people, and like a lot of brash young’uns I enjoyed doing the flyswatter bit—appointing myself Hammer of Allah, in other words—on anyone I though stupid and deserving of such treatment.
Yes, the word IS “hubris.” The phrase might be “the most impossible person on earth.”
Fact is, though, when you teach you can’t be that self-indulgent; people often really are trying, and you have to somehow, on the fly, restate a clueless question so that it seems as if the person was just a couple of inches away from making a really trenchant point. This can be a real intellectual challenge, and even fun. What’s more, if students walk out chattering interestedly, isn’t that a lot better than having them carried out feet first? We’re not even discussing what will happen when the season of teaching evaluations rolls around.
And this brings us back to Mrs. Mary Hingley and the wisdom of certain parents and teachers. (I guess I’ve observed it more in women, but this is a personal observation unsupported by hard data, so don’t bother suing me for sexism…besides, you can’t get blood out of a stone.) The question of the smallest child, or the greenest newbie, can—if treated with respect—make of that person a loving initiate, perhaps forever. The questioner feels, for ONCE, as if he or she is not being condescended to (“That’s enough now; eat your dinner!” or “ [SIGH] I wonder how many times I will have to repeat that a symphony is not a ‘song’…”), and the gratitude is often palpable. When we are taken seriously by older relatives and authority figures, we cherish the memory our entire lives.
Then, much later, you find yourself teaching a seminar with five people in it and everyone asks deep, penetrating, life-the-universe-and-everything questions, and you wonder how it could possibly get better.
Besides the salary, I mean.
But it is worth saying a silent thank-you to those who showed us patience and respect in the past, because it is that exchange of ideas, that early-childhood or -studenthood pedagogy, that may be more responsible for making academics of us even than the disciplines themselves. And however bitter or burned out we are tempted to get, being part of humanity’s ancient pedagogical chain is a sacred privilege, but one—we must remember—we did earn, to a certain extent, but in a very real way we were granted. Those that answered off-the-wall questions with due measured seriousness, successfully stifling whatever smiles were yearning to reconfigure their faces, were in a very real way the ones that punched our tickets into the Clan. To them we owe…everything.