Hello. My name is Bill Gholson, and I am a recently retired teacher with 41 years of experience at the university and high school levels. My official title now is Professor Emeritus of English and Writing. I taught for eleven years at the high school level, and thirty years at the university level. Please follow me through a random set of questions as I attempt to provide interesting answers to engage and amuse you. I hope all of you have had some time to kick up your feet, light up a cigar, and languish. You deserve it, so don’t feel guilty.
In my graduate work, when I wasn’t grinding my fingernails down to the nub, I focused on two topics—Rhetoric and Contemporary American Literature. Rhetoric is the study of what makes things persuasive, or, in the case of literature, what makes something work. What are the norms established in the text? Who is speaking? Who might be the audience? What is the ethical relationship between reader and writer? Those are a few of the questions I pursued and rhetoric allowed me to ask. And, because I found a great advisor in the rhetoric program (by “great” I mean he gave me freedom), I focused my dissertation on the moral universe in the later novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Please don’t look up my dissertation. It is terrible, but in pursuing the questions, I learned so much.
Speaking of sharing, here is a short poem I wrote. It is not haiku, but I like it for its tightness and its message. I’ll let you think about the meaning. You can copy it and put in on your refrigerator—As if the students’ lives and your lives matter.
To listen to each heart and return its beating.
To care for each one as if two faces were sacred spaces.
To become an opening every day.
To take them in as if their life, and mine, matter:
Preparing every day.
Don’t you just love public libraries? Next to the hospital and the fire station, I can’t think of a more important resource than our public libraries. I do not have one single resource that I can recommend. I love all of the resources, especially the resource librarians who are among the few earthly angels we have. Can you believe they get excited and obsessed to help you if you ask a question?
I like libraries most because they are a place for the lonely. When I was growing up in a small town in Illinois, the public library saved me and let me know that the things I was feeling were felt by others. You may find that students who act out are sometimes lonely. It’s interesting to find out if a student is lonely or if you are lonely when you are on the job. Remember that students come to us with the story of their education. By this I mean that however they act, whatever they say, the things they are interested in or not interested in are encapsulated in a story. Or, at least they can be. Sometimes reminding myself of this helped me to not head-butt a student, but to listen to what story they were telling me. Vonnegut said that all of our lives are made up of stories and the stories we tell each other. You could think worse thoughts.
You can find all kinds of information at libraries too. Librarians love to help you and talk with you. Finally, in the summer, most libraries have air conditioning; so while you are using the resources you will be cool and relaxed, an overall pleasant experience. I mean it. When I was a lonely and poor kid, I was astounded that the library building was so cool. We did not have air conditioning at home, and the library had a sacred coolness to it. I grew to appreciate the silence and to hold books in a special place. Speaking of new students, here is a poem that pretends to be about new students in the title, but it is also about teachers.
I will look for you
among the young faces
in your new wilderness. You in
You will walk into the classroom
with a story of your education. You have
never recognized your self in a book and poetry
leaves you cold and impatient.
That’s why I will tell
a joke just for you, a whopper
to help the medicine go down. I will look
over my shoulder, my eyes sliding to yours. We
will acknowledge one another.
That may be enough for now, something for
your brave heart, something for me, too. “Here
we are,” my eyes will say, “broken and burdened, precious
birds to sing our way through the high and forbiddingdesert, the wild and disturbing sea.”
You all do such an important job—a job which is really a vocation. Wasn’t it incredible when the parents were screaming for the schools to open? I think many parents learned how difficult it is to teach. It may be forgotten, but I think we learned during the pandemic that teachers are vital to society. I would go as far as saying that teachers are first responders… with a headache.
Our job as teachers is not made any easier by those who seek to cull certain books and eliminate them from the library. It is not surprising that culling books has become widespread lately. I believe this most recent interest in banning books comes out of fascist tendencies in the government and the society at large. People who ban books may care for students as much as anybody does, but these people really want control. You may just be happy a student is reading at all. The real damage is in the internet. Book banners should turn their attention to the internet.
I think one of the biggest challenges for educators today is to overcome the attention that the internet demands. There is no way that teachers can compete with the flash of the internet, so we must learn to work with it. So, I think that grabbing the attention of students is a first-class problem. Who and what demands are on your students? What are they paying attention to? What grabs your attention? What are you paying attention to? How do these attentions conflict or where do you see similarities? I only know you ask the questions which might lead to change. The questions will lead you. Rhetoric taught me this.
Teachers—believe it or not—are mentors for students. My mentor, John Gage, taught me so much which I cannot put into words. He served as an example and trusted students. What stories of their education are students telling? Remember that you are teaching even when you don’t think you are teaching. Finally, with the trust that John Gage afforded students, he also gave students lots of freedom. And so, I, too, believe these things. He gave me lots of freedom because he knew I sought it, and he learned this by listening and paying attention. I understand that freedom comes when students learn to take responsibility for their own educations. And here is a random factoid: Did you know that college football coaches are often the highest paid people in their states? That teaches us something. There is a story about education in this little factoid.
If you are still with me, let me end my story with this advice: You may never know how much you have helped a student. Being a teacher means you must have a large reservoir of faith and belief that you are sending students on the right path. Given the mission of teachers, the community could have a large role to play. As we say these days, teaching is an all-hands-on-deck situation. But it requires that people in the community have the goodwill to believe in your mission for your students.
It has been a pleasure writing to you. I hope what I have said is helpful. What you do is so important. Carry on. How about one last poem? Ok, here it is, a poem for when you have reached your limit.
Only This Moment
Sooner or later, all of us reach
It might begin
when we look
in the mirror
but do not recognize
the blemish, the dark shadows,
under our eyes,
the haggardness of fear
This is a good time to take a dip,
to breathe, to step into the
Transition and change is all.
For me it seems to be a time
not to hold back
There is only this moment
we take with us wherever
And the blemish is a
who teaches us to take the next step
when we would rather hide