My parents taught high school, too busy doing good to worry about getting rich. Each prized learning, deep-down, over trend, skin-deep. Both showed how, not what, to think: creatively, but logically.
Each thought that teaching should make a difference. Agreeing, each summer I ask friends which teacher raised the bar, never pandered, and pivoted their career? Peter O’Toole starred in film’s My Favorite Year. Jeanne Braham was my favorite teacher.
Retrieve fall 1969 of Woodstock and Peace With Honor and the Silent Majority. Freshmen, Braham wrote, entered “a small [Allegheny] College in northwestern Pennsylvania where the annual average snowfall is 112 inches, where Saturday tolls the class bell for everyman, where ten-week terms have the ballooning pressure of an inverted bell curve.”
I was a student in the first English class Braham taught at Allegheny. At 29, she later wrote, Jeanne had already braved “a damaging marriage, [now] coming home to the world of the living and the loving.” She wore black boots, quoted singer Jim Morrison, and carried a coffee mug into class. The coffee soon vanished: not so, Braham’s effect.
My favorite teacher loved art (of which I knew little) and music (understandably, given the age’s rock balladeers) and poetry (feeling, as Churchill said, that “Words are bullets to use as ammunition.”) I became a History-turned-English major, riveted by Dreiser and Hemingway and e.e. Cummings. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young sang Teach Your Children. Jeanne did.
She tied work, keen curiosity, and contempt for trivia. Spurning would-be Mandrakes, Braham declined to deviance- or dumb-down. Let Theodore Roszac hail irrationality; Margaret Mead, wallow in future speak; Kenneth Kenniston, term Boomer Nation — comically, looking back — the best and brightest. Jeanne refused to corrupt or condescend.
Instead, she knew “the depth, the draught of water of every one of [her students],” paraphrasing Emerson. Knowing my love of baseball, Braham marked one written exam with inside vernacular: “warm up with a leaded bat … a good solid hit … at least a triple … and a grand slam wrap.” Students found her glib, private, unafraid, and irrepressible. Ultimately, our road diverged, as friends’ often do.
Out of money, I transferred to the State University of New York at Geneseo: ultimately, a most fortuitous turn. Braham founded Heatherstone Press, became New England Watershed poetry editor, left Allegheny, returned, and wrote four books of poetry, reading it with an orchestra aboard paddleboats on the Ohio.
In a baccalaureate address, Braham, a Wooster College graduate, told how its president “liked to tell the graduates of my era that the last word that a college gave to you was your own name. His point was twofold: that the last official act of a college was to announce your name on a diploma; its final wish was for you to discover the true nature of that identity.”
That had happened to her only recently, she said, returning to a summer home “my family had kept during the last years of my childhood. The house was boarded up, and brush had obscured some ambitious bridle paths I had cut with an uncle in two exhausting weekends. But as I walked in the woods I came upon a joltingly familiar chair my father had constructed years earlier to watch the feeding deer he always claimed he intended to stalk but, in fact, never killed.”
To Braham, “It was a primary discovery. One that bound life into cycles not of endless and futile repetition but of growth. I sat in it and knew my own name.” Every child’s name should stem partly from a favorite teacher. Each father should have a “daddy’s girl”; each musician, a Sinatra room; each student, a Jeanne Braham.
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