Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference

By Mark Edmundson(Vintage, 288 pp., $13.00) BUY NOW!
Reviewed by Eva A. Frank

Perhaps I have seen Stand and Deliver and Dead Poets Society too many times. Until Mark Edmundson’s Teacher, I think I believed a teacher’s story only worthy if the outcome is monumental student transformation. Disenfranchised students receiving 5s on the Advanced Placement Statistics test, high school students being groomed for ivory towers ripping pages from English literature anthologies. Edmundson proved me wrong with his tale of Frank Lears at Medford High School.

In this simple tale of high school normalcy circa 1969-1970, Edmundson reminisces of his time as a student indifferent to everything but football, pool and alcohol. Like his buddies in his working-class enclave outside Boston, he regards teachers as the enemy and cannot recall finishing a book. By his senior year, he detests his courses and is resigned to succumbing to a life of factory work. Much later, at an impasse in his own teaching (as it turns out, Edmundson does not head to the factory, but becomes an English professor at University of Virginia), Edmundson begins to reminisce about Lears, who, he learns, abandoned the teaching profession after only one year.

A small and nervous recent Harvard graduate, Frank Lears arrived at Medford High to teach philosophy. Marked by his students as an easy target, Lears did not win them over through love, compassion, or sheer will. He rearranged the desks into a circle, played music, staged a snow-ball fight and exchanged textbooks for Ken Kesey novels. He employed contempt for conformity as his pedagogical tool, hoping to goad his students into thinking for themselves.

In talking about Lears and other adult influences on his own adolescent self, Edmundson posits two exemplary teachers as frameworks for where the adults in his life fit in: Plato, who leads his disciples to face life’s truths and Socrates, who offers questions (but no answers) as a method to look at life. While Edmundson does not reveal transformed life paths of his classmates or himself due to Lear’s brilliant instruction, he does reveal that he has found his Socrates, the one who leads him to question football, pool and all that he knows and accepts as his future. And for those of us immersed in the work of supporting students learning to use their minds well, don’t we hope a little Frank Lears lives in all of us?

Eva Frank directs the CES Video Principles Project. Prior to joining CES National, Eva taught social studies in the Communications Academy, a small learning community focused on video arts, drama, history and English at Drake High School in San Anselmo, CA.