YOU DIDN'T EVEN have to open the paper. There he was on the front page of The Wall Street Journal -- all grainy and hand-sketched-looking because I guess the Journal doesn't employ photographers -- smiling as if he's waiting for you to answer the last question. It was Tucsonan Bill Broyles. For a lot of kids, he was the best English teacher they ever had; for most kids, he's the only grown-up they ever knew eccentric or inquisitive enough to drink his own pee.
Bill was the environmentalists' spokesman for an article last summer on the military/ Indians'/greens' tug-of-war over the proposed Sonoran Desert National Park. The reporter used him anecdotally: described him out driving his '74 Suburban though the desert; closed with him commenting on Orion and the military illuminating the night sky. She successfully captured his voice -- a sort of medium-high tenor with an interrogative edge to it -- as if even when he's discussing something he knows well, he's still open to reexamining it. You might have heard that voice on The Desert Speaks, talking historical treks or the drinking habits of mountain goats. He's the desert guy. The Journal article identified him as a retired high-school English teacher.
It's the "retired" part that smarts.
Now, for the most part the field of education -- my field -- is not eccentric or risk-taking. It's not known for attracting people who drink their own pee. In fact it's been my observation that some teachers are simply too clean-living and polite to actually emit anything as pungent or concentrated as urine. We're a generally unobtrusive bunch, teachers -- encouraged to be cooperative, collaborative (I used to think that word had a pejorative connotation -- as in, "with the Nazis" -- but I know better now), conforming. The most useful of us are cheerful deliverers of Integrated Curriculum, turning out cooperative, collaborative, compliant American citizens.
Not those exceptions like Bill Broyles.
Some guys just care too much about their subjects to collaborate nicely.
I think it takes two things to be a great teacher: knowledge of your subject and a passion to impart it. A movement's been around for a while in educational circles to "integrate" learning -- to blur the lines between and among disciplines. I suspect that's a conspiracy of the stupid to produce more of what too many of us already are -- well-intentioned generalists, boys and girls who gave the answers the teachers wanted and know a little about a lot of things. Indeed, for some, "those who can't do, teach." But the ones who make a difference in kids' intellectual or creative lives are the ones who live intellectual or creative lives, who specialize in a field and live for their specialty.
Broyles is a writer -- a journalist, a researcher. He took real-world experience to the writing classroom. His desert passion thing -- days lurking by water holes, body-temperature experiments, hikes across seriously barren landscape -- materialized for others through his capacity for observation facility with language. As a teacher, Bill modeled writing. He taught kids how to move from that amorphous longing to write to the concrete construction of realities with words.
Tucson has others who teach their passions: Halfmann sends photographers out into the world like missionaries; Veres is a musician spawning musicians; Reff churns out young capitalists who don't even know they aren't Democrats anymore. Too bad there aren't more of them.
This year a national controversy has smoldered over how to improve the teaching profession. A Thomas B. Fordham report took issue with the approach of two teachers' accreditation agencies and Bill Clinton on improving teacher preparation. The Fordham report accused them of foregoing tough requirements in academic fields in favor of soft courses in pedagogy -- it called them vague and theoretical, focused on the comfort level of the learning environment. As uncomfortable as this teacher feels in the company of think tank fellows, I'd have to agree with Fordham. Give me a qualified French teacher any day who'll make me sweat to correct my "Je pense, donc je est" over one who'll let me cut out pictures of baguettes and make nonthreatening culture collages.
So. Bill Broyles wasn't fired or anything. Last year, as school was starting, he suddenly retired. After three decades or so of high school teaching, it could be that he was ready to move on. But he still has energy. Talent. Uncompromised standards. Vision that he's now sharing with the larger community. He'd agitated for standards and vision there in the schools, for a while, but the rest of us were pretty busy nurturing the status quo and didn't respond much. It's our loss. It should be our lesson.