I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts, since the medium is the human mind and spirit. — John Steinbeck
I'm a teacher. My CV at University of Southern California (where I've taught for 30 years) says I'm an "artist-educator." That's why I like the quote above from John Steinbeck, one of America's best novelists of the 20th century.
He sees great teachers as great artists, and although I've had my share of teachers who were anything but artists, I like to think of myself as being included in Steinbeck's category.
I think those unique and "great" teachers (the few we remember because they made a difference in our lives) have contributed to changing the world one student at a time.
Steinbeck claims he had three. One in high school, one in college at Stanford and one a lifelong friend, Ed Ricketts. All of whom helped form him as a writer and as a man. Me? I had only two: General Constance Greene and Lieutenant Colonel Joan Colaprete.
Both high school English teachers. Both strong and unrelenting. Both eccentric and inspiring. They set the bar high so their students could rise. They got the best out of us. And they planted the seeds in me for words, for stories and for the hunger to learn.
Oddly enough (but not really because "life is what happens while you're waiting for your plans to work out"), I became a teacher... although I never planned to be a teacher, nor a college professor.
I'm from "New Yawk." My family was Eastern European Jews from the Ukraine, so naturally I was supposed to become "their son, the doctor."
But somewhere along my unhappy adolescent way, during the end of the rebellious, counter-cultural 1960s, after I dropped calculus twice and physics three times, I "turned on, tuned in, dropped out," as eminent Harvard professor and LSD pioneer Timothy Leary encouraged us to do. And I ended up taking the "road less traveled."
I became a modern dancer and a professional clown. Then a theater director and documentary filmmaker ("The Poet and the Con"). Then a poet and a solo performance artist. I ran for mayor of New York City as a clown named Gino Cumeezi. And I -- I mean Gino -- finished fifth out of four candidates.
I've been a maverick and nonconformist my whole life. In fact, I don't know how I was ever hired by the prestigious University of Southern California.
But I do remember the first time I was struck by the fact that I could teach. I was 12 years old, studying for my Bar Mitzvah in Hebrew School. Mr. Tarshish was the bald, ineffectual teacher of the class, where he taught us how to read the Hebrew language, backwards from right to left and phonetically, so we could sound it out correctly for our "Haftorah." It was the part of our Bar Mitzvah service we had to read aloud when we "became a man" at age 13 and joined the community of reformers.
The problem was that Mr. Tarshish never taught us the meaning of the words we sounded out. It was a foolish and impossibly hard way to learn a language and a complete waste of time. Except, of course, for the once-in-a-lifetime Saturday morning Bar Mitzvah ceremony, which, when it came down to it, was all that really mattered.
In the class with me was Marvin Pishkowitz, a soft-faced, gentle boy of 12 who was one of my best friends. Marvin was good at marbles and kickball and at collecting Topps baseball cards. He was not good at languages. And he certainly was completely hopeless in Mr. Tarshish's ill-conceived Hebrew class.
One day, I invited Marvin over to my house on Valentines Road. After peanut butter and jelly sandwiches prepared by my doting Mom, I sat him down, opened a Hebrew book and explained to him how it worked.
"The funny looking letters on the top are like our English alphabet's consonants, but backwards. And the dots underneath are the vowels," I told him. "But instead of 'a, e, i, o, u,' Hebrew has sounds like 'ah, eh, oh, uh,' etc. Get it?" Marvin shook his head in bewilderment. But after about five hours, it really started to sink in.
The next Friday, we both showed up for the uselessness of Mr. Tarshish's class. Lo and behold, when it was Marvin's turn to read aloud, he did. Mr. Tarshish was shocked. Completely amazed.
"How did you do that, Marvin?" Marvin turned bright red with embarrassment and accomplishment. "Who taught you to do that?" Marvin looked over at yours Trulesly, and smiled sheepishly.
Mr. Tarshish said, "You taught him to read Hebrew? When?" "Yesterday, Mr. Tarshish," I responded. "How?" the flabbergasted bald man blurted out disbelievingly.
I explained it as something about the vowels and the consonants and reading slowly "backwards" from left to right. I think Mr. Tarshish may have understood. And on that day, at 12 years old, in Temple Sholom's tacky Hebrew school classroom, I learned and I came to understand that I could teach.
It had something to do with the ability to understand and to explain how something works, specifically. Of course, many people can understand and be proficient at what they do. They "just do it." But explaining it — breaking it down into a logical pedagogy that progresses from lesson one to the final lesson — that's a special talent and skill.
Too many people buy into the bogus idea that teachers are failed doers. That only those who can't do well and succeed resort to teaching. I think that's not totally wrong, but it is often bone-headedly and assumptively wrong.
Teaching is an art form all its own. It's not easy to teach. Not only because teachers are never paid enough in our culture (or others) and have to perform under often demanding conditions, but also because it takes patience, understanding, preparation and methodology to teach well.
Good teachers have "a gift." They plant seeds in their students that will blossom and grow long beyond the confines of their classrooms. "Teachers" are heroically hard workers dedicated to the lives of their students. That's why we remember the "great ones." That's why I have a Facebook group called "Trules Children," peopled with almost 600 former students, who I see, in some odd way (because I met and trained them in such intimate ways), as members of my extended "family."
As I look back on my life, I'd like to see what lessons this "artist-educator" still has to learn, and which he still has to teach.