Remembering One Teacher


Growing Without Schooling


Browse in Education

I was looking for someone to help a friend. That was how I met Mr. W.

“What are you studying, young man?” he asked.

“Well, English,” I replied. “But I’m thinking of switching to something else. I don’t like the way they teach it.”

For some reason, that answer appealed to him. He called out to his wife. Was there enough for a guest for lunch?

Later that week I visited him at his office.  I remember pausing at the door, trying to compose my mind. I was nineteen years old and I didn’t know what I was going to say to this man.

That day, and on the many days that followed, Mr. W talked to me — about his boyhood in New York, the Gurdjieff group in which he and his wife were avid participants, hiss days as a New Dealer in Washington and as a special agent for the United Nations, And above this, about scripture and what I will call, for want of a better word, life-wisdom.

At that time, college was a desert for me. All it seemed to offer was information. Mr. W was talking about life. He understood that while young people resist outright instruction, they search instinctively for lessons from stories that appear to be about someone else. That was how he talked to me. He told me, for example, about how his grandfather — an old radical– had made him read Marx in the original German. (Always go to the original sources. Never take anything second hand.) He told me how, as an art student, he had tried to paint the-spaces between the buildings, when everyone else was painting the buildings, (Look for what others are missing.) Then there was the time he and his wife, a pianist, were scheduled to fly out of Vienna.  The night before, his wife had a dream or premonition, and insisted that they cancel the flight. They did, and the plane crashed.

The message was to trust intuition, to value what seems irrational. Of course, I didn’t realize all that at the time. Looking back, I can only wonder at how his words impressed themselves upon my life without my thinking much about it. He spoke often, for example, of a New York friend named Melville Cane, a prominent copyright lawyer who was also a poet. As it happens, my own career has evolved from law to writing. After Mr. W lit my imagination with accounts of the New Deal, I spent over ten years in Washington -a place to which I am sure I would not otherwise have been drawn.

I recall vividly one Saturday, when I was sitting in the second floor study in Mr. W’s home, scrutinizing, as usual, the bookshelves behind his desk for clues. Mr. W had just returned from Washington, where he had met a young lawyer who had risen to prominence around that time. Mr. W’s view of the political figures of the day was not high. But this man was different. “I like that young man,” he said. Then, rising from his seat and pounding his hand on his desk with an enthusiasm I had not before seen, he said, ‘He understands what it means to be committed.”

He was talking about Ralph Nader. A year or two later, through a seemingly unrelated chain of events, I found myself one of “Naders Raiders,” an association which was to last over five years.

“Commitment” was one of Mr. W’s favorite words. When they were first married, he said, his wife — a pianist and teacher of improvisation – would be at the piano when he left the house in the morning, and would still be there when he returned. ‘Like someone else I know,’ he said, bestirring that very quailty in me by assuming that I already had it.

One spring I visited him months after he had been injured in a car crash. His hair was whiter, his walk a bit uncertain, but he was in full command, and there was an urgency, an impatience almost, that I had not noted before. “You are expecting to get information from me, but you can’t,” he said. “It all has to come from inside.”

Though I visited from time to time during the next few years, I drifted somewhat out of orbit. I think I had taken in about as much as I could hold, until he had roughed me up and prompted new and more genuine questions. I sat in his study a few years later, when this strength had begun to fade. I was voicing, as usual, my life problems and complaints (in the past I was not above conjuring these up just to get him talking). Finding myself doing this, I felt hollow and full of shame. He had borne as much as he could. I couldn’t fob off my own work on him any longer.

Many, many times I have wished he were still here. At long last, I am beginning to know what to ask. There are times, too, when I realize that I have let too much slip, that I have not tended diligently to what he gave me.  My ears were hungry and eager when I first met him. They are harder now. I am all too inclined to think that I know something. I hear the echo of his voice in his last days, saying to me – it was a demand, really – “And? And?”