by ALISTAIR BOMPHRAY
This is a shamefully belated post but it’s important to me that I write it anyway. Last summer, a college teacher of mine, Alan Howes, passed away. It wasn’t tragic or sudden; he lived a long, full life, one in which he had time to serve in the army, earn his Ph.D. from Yale, and teach University of Michigan students for over forty years. I don’t intend this piece to be an eulogy in the strictest sense—I didn’t know him well enough—but a meditation on the kinds of things good teachers leave behind when they step out of the classroom for good.
First, a little about Alan. He was not a man who loved the sound of his own voice. Nor was he one of those professors who strive to wow students with their brilliance. Such professorial ego-stroking would’ve been in opposition to his humble nature and student-centered style of teaching. Instead, he created space for students to try out their voices, and if all went well, for them to be brilliant.
When I met him in 1999, he was already old. I remember his hunched-over figure, his leathery hands, and his eyes beginning to cloud with cataracts. He also had a pretty tremendous white beard, on par with John Muir or some other 19th century mountain seer. I was impressed by this beard. But when you’re twenty years old, as I was in ’99, you don’t have a very sophisticated set of criteria by which to understand old people. Either they’re old and wise or old and curmudgeonly, without much space for gray in between. Alan was obviously the former (see beard), and though Obi Wan Kenobi figured prominently enough in my imagination to foster in me an innate respect for wise old men, we learn best from real people, not one-dimensional projections of human virtue. In order for Alan to really get my ear, he was going to have to complicate himself, or rather, I was going to have to complicate him, which, you know, is asking a lot of a self-absorbed 20-year old.
Luckily for me, Alan Howes would not be so easily pigeonholed. Early in the semester, he showed up for class wearing a T-shirt with a silkscreened photograph of himself in the 70’s looking like a cross between the Dennis Hopper character from Easy Rider and some blissed out modern version of St. Francis—in short, he looked like a wild man. The contrast between this robust, long-haired hippie frozen in time and the old man standing before us was powerful. It was proof that his life extended beyond the realm of white-haired literature prof. He was human. Like us. No, wilder than us. And more mysterious too. Also, he was funny. The fact that this soft-spoken old guy would wear a photograph of himself—one in which he looked like a Harley-riding acidhead no less—was funny. And funny is real.
From that point on, I was on board. In addition to being playful and wise, Alan was also a gifted teacher. His greatest strength was his gentle way of coaxing the conversation into richer and less-traveled territory. In retrospect, it’s not enough to call him a teacher of literature. He taught us how to listen, to synthesize, to ask questions—in effect, how to have a conversation. The truth is, I probably missed out on Alan’s prime as an educator. One year away from his official retirement (at age 78!), he was teaching out of love rather than need. Any comparison (by me, at least) between young and old Alan would be purely speculative, but I can’t help but think that someone who was still that good in his late seventies must’ve been bad ass in his fifties.
Perhaps Alan’s most enduring legacy—and I use that term a little shamefacedly as Alan was certainly not the kind of guy who whiled away his eighties thinking about something so shallow as legacy—is the New England Literature Program (NELP), a spring semester offered by the University of Michigan in which forty students live on a lake in Maine, read New England writers, and climb mountains together. Alan co-founded this program 36 years ago, a fact all the more remarkable considering its back-to-basics values and strict ban of cell phones, computers, and all things ‘i’—this in an age when the average college student would sooner give up wearing pants than such necessities as Facebook. Speaking personally now, NELP was the single most important educational experience of my life, and I’ll put money on there being more than a handful of former NELPers out there (ranging in age from twenty to late fifties) who would say roughly the same.
Though Alan has not been a full-time teacher at NELP in many years, his philosophy of education is still apparent in everything that happens there. Yes, the ostensible project of NELP is to teach students about New England literature. But it’s also so much more than that. At its base, it’s about learning how to learn. There isn’t space here to get into the pedagogical intricacies of NELP, but what this program does well is teach students how to take ownership of their own education. It’s no coincidence that so many NELPers go on to become gifted teachers themselves.
In 36 years of NELP, approximately 1400 students have passed through the program. That’s nothing, you might say. And you would be right—except that those 1400 former students are out there in the world right now, like spores of some ancient, life-giving tree, infusing their lives and the lives of people around them with the spirit of NELP’s creators—okay, Thoreau and Dickinson too—and their vision of a personal and transformative education. (Please believe me when I tell I didn’t mean for that to sound Avatar-like.)
This is inspiring to me as an educator because it means we have a real power to create lasting institutional change, and change that extends outward into the larger community. Too often we resign ourselves to the institution as, at best, a kind of exoskeleton, and, at worst, a prison. What if, instead, we were to regard it as a ball of clay, to be shaped and molded into a testing ground for our own educational values. Perhaps that sounds idealistic to those of you who are entrenched in a public school system increasingly shaped by budget cuts and standardized testing. Perhaps… but I want to believe there’s still room for this kind of self-determination.
There’s no doubt that we don’t honor teachers enough in this culture. I expect that it is honor enough for Alan to know that come April forty more young people will get in a van and drive to New England for a life-changing educational experience that will resonate deeply and truly. He and his T-shirt will be missed.
Alistair is a high school English teacher currently on one-year sabbatical. He promises to return to education with a vengeance, but until then, he has some wandering to do.