After I took my final exams, I decided to go to the beach for a few days. I wanted to feel close to God, and since I was a kid the ocean has always connected me to the divine. Growing up I spent a lot of summers at eastern shore of Maryland, about three hours from my home in Washington, D.C. The semester was over. It was time for a break—and to wrap up this diary.
The only thing I felt nervous about was the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The Bay Bridge is a colossus, one of the man-made wonders of the world. It’s over four miles long and 10 stories high; driving across its majestic expanse you feel like you’re entering the City of God. I had crossed it hundreds of times, but in the last year it had sometimes been difficult. When I was going through my cancer treatment they put me on steroids, and it made me anxious. The first time I drove myself down to Ocean City, Md., during my treatment, I had a massive anxiety attack right as I began to cross the bridge. It got so bad I almost stopped the car halfway through. Ever since then I was afraid it might happen again, even though my treatment was pretty much done except for this maintenance regiment I am on every three months.
I was sure I did well in both my classes, “Foundations of Education” and “Introduction to Special Education.” And I was happy I had taken both courses. There is an idea—an idea that I used to believe—that anyone with charisma and a powerful personality can be a teacher, and that the teachers unions and the bureaucracies should just step aside. I always used to hear the same example: Colin Powell could not be a teacher! It’s all that red tape! Dump the bureaucrats! There is some truth to that, put the most brilliant person in the world needs some basic tools for handling a classroom—tools that I learned in the classes I took. Conversely, there are people out there with master’s degree in education who don’t belong in a classroom. On our last day of class in “Foundations of Education,” our professor, Karen, bluntly told us the truth. “Part of teaching is the right training,” she said, “but let’s face it: a crucial part is talent and personality. Some people have taken all the right education courses. They read the right books. They are certified. But they stink as teachers. They just don’t have it.”
The day after my final exams, I was called in to sub at St. Teresa’s, the Catholic K-8 school where I’m a regular. I had started teaching at St. Teresa’s. I had been there when I got diagnosed with cancer, and the principal, Sr. Mary, had the entire school praying for me. It had worked. How sad that had it been a public school such action would not have been possible. The eradication of God from the classroom has left hole in America, both spiritually and intellectually; in his wonderful book “Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education,” Stratford Caldecott explores religion the subjective expression of feelings, but as a valuable form of knowledge—that we could come to know and understand God not just through faith but through human reason; that the more we learned about the universe scientifically, the more awesome it seems. Caldecott insists, convincingly, that there is an unbreakable connection between truth and beauty, and that the theological pursuit of the meaning of that connection is the most important quest in life. He quotes Socrates, who said that the point of education is to teach us to love what is beautiful.
Starting with Horace Mann, the father of the American public educational system, and reaching its height with John Dewey, the titan of early 20th century progressivism, western education had cut itself off from God. It often did this in the name of “pragmatism,” which was a favorite term of Dewey, who had once been a giant in the field of American education. Dewey had introduced the idea of progressive education, which meant that education should not be about memorization or God or learning history but simply about what worked in an ever-changing society. Dewey wrote a small library‘s worth of books and articles; he was refuted in one sentence by G.K. Chesterton, who said, regarding Dewey, “Pragmatism is a matter of human needs, and one of the first of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist.” This doesn’t mean that you turn public schools into Christian schools. It does mean that teaching the world’s religions as philosophies that offer insights into human nature and the universe could have a transformative effect on the schools. It could teach kids to love reason, to love truth, to love what is beautiful.
After getting my grades I packed my car for the trip to the beach, but I had to teach for a day before leaving. At St. Teresa’s, the seventh grade class had been given an assignment to find examples of “good angels” in society. They had to find a newspaper or magazine clipping about people who were helping others. Most of the kids had slipped stories about people helping victims in Haiti.
When they were done, I offered my own. “My good angels are you guys,” I said. I explained that when I was sick I could feel their prayers, and that they had helped me get better. “And your hair is growing back!” one of them called out.
As I was walking to my car after school I almost stopped by the grave of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who is buried in a small graveyard next to St. Teresa’s. But then I decided against it. Fitzgerald, an alcoholic who famously said “there are no second acts in American life,” had been wrong. There were second acts. I was proof of that.
I decided then and here that I was going to continue to take the remaining required classes to get my teacher certification. I had thought that if I didn’t get a job offer to teach, and soon, I was going to just do something else. But that kind of attitude reeked of resentment, which is what killed Fitzgerald. No, I was going to finish. Even if I found a different career that paid better and that I liked more, I would get my certification. It was an exciting time to be a teacher. With charter schools exploding and even the Washington Post admitting the failure of the public schools, freedom was in the air. The old liberal order was crumbling, if slowly.
An hour later, I was at the Bay Bridge. I could feel my adrenaline start to rise, and I didn’t have any tranquilizers. I had refused to take any from my doctor.
Instead, I put in a Van Morrison CD. Just hang on, I said to myself. After lymphoma, six months of chemotherapy, and controlling classrooms full of rowdy kids, I wasn’t going down because of some dumb ass panic attack.
My car slowly rose over the bay. I held on and my breath grew shallow. For a few minutes there was no sound other than the Van Morrison CD playing low and the da-dump, da-dump of the tires running across the pavement. Then, the halfway point. I was going to make it. I started to breathe again. As the far shore came into view I turned up the volume:
We were born before the wind
Also younger than the sun
Ere the bonnie boat was won as we sailed into the mystic
Hark, now hear the sailors cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic
And when that fog horn blows I will be coming home
And when the fog horn blows I want to hear it
I don’t have to fear it
And I want to rock your gypsy soul
Just like way back in the days of old
And magnificently we will flow into the mystic
Come on girl
It’s too late to stop now
Augustine Brehon is a name assumed to protect the author, who is currently receiving his education certification near Washington, D.C.