This post is dedicated to Evan Schaeffer.
Evan Schaeffer wrote eloquently about his teacher Walter Ong in a post unfortunately obscured by the interest generated by the change in the name of his blog.
The post helped me understand and appreciate what Evan is trying to do with his blog, his approach to writing, his immense talent as a writer, and the gift of having a great and influential teacher. Forget about the discussion of changing the name of Evan’s blogs and blogs as lawyer marketing tools – the post on Walter Ong is the post from Evan that you should be paying attention to.
As I’ve , Bert Stern is the kind of teacher for me that Ong was for Evan. Evan’s post and Bert’s recent essay called Being Here prompted me to dig back through my archives and pull out an essay I wrote in 1997 on the occasion of Bert’s retirement.
Bert is fond of the Eastern saying: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” So am I.
Twenty years ago, I was a sophomore math major who had just learned that Bert would be my professor in my second semester of the required “Cultures and Traditions” class. I received a number of vague warnings about Bert from my frat brothers, mainly about the possibility of a downward movement in my g.p.a. I was a bit wary, but never expected how the next three semesters would rock my world.
What I remember about that C&T class is how day after day Bert opened doors, finding clear connections between things that once seemed to have no connection. His classes were the most challenging and powerful presentations I’d ever experienced and every day I thanked Wabash’s random number generator for assigning me to his class.
I spent many hours over the next three semesters (Bert was on sabbatical in my senior year) sitting in Bert’s office, talking away the afternoons. Bert invited me to take English 97, the course for junior majors, as my very first English course. I struggled that semester with thoughts of big issues, punk rock and of the inadequacy of my math classes to give voice to what I needed to express.
I remember one afternoon when Bert and I talked at length about Yeats and, as I rose to go, Bert said, “So, when are we going to get you to be an English major?” I was one class away from meeting the math major requirement. I would have to take eight or nine English classes in the next three semesters to become an English major. I took the path to the English major.
I did most of my best work at Wabash for Bert, although usually on the second try. Bert is a great editor. He’s very hard to please, but you gradually realize that he’s not working to get you to please him, but to please yourself, to raise your own level of excellence.
In English 97, Bert suggested that I do a paper on Yeats and I immersed myself in the process, reading everything I could find and talking to Bert on a regular basis. I wrote a draft of the paper and gave it to Bert.
I remember his disappointment with that draft. Not that it wasn’t good in its way, but that it could have been better.
I walked back to the fraternity house, mulling over his comments. I sat down in my room and then began to write. For a period of six or eight hours, I kept writing, without a pause, completely re-doing the whole paper. I typed it up and knew that I was much closer to the real paper that had been inside of me.
I gave that paper to Bert, and the smile I saw after he read it let me know that it was much closer to the paper he had seen inside me and that he saw the enormous step I had taken.
Bert and I have stayed in touch ever since Wabash and we were talking, by e-mail, before his retirement event. He has a friend who is a shaman from Central America and they had been talking about the need for ritual and ceremony at a point of transition like a retirement. Typical of Bert, the ceremony he was thinking of involved the sacrifice of a large farm animal.
But it also called for the exchange of small gifts which had special meaning. As those who attended the event know, the Department gave everyone a copy of Bert’s “Little Poem” on hand-made paper. I gave Bert a bound copy of the Yeats paper.
The animals made it through the event safely.
[Originally posted on DennisKennedy.Blog (]