In my first job, at a new Quaker school in the countryside of Maryland, teaching English, Latin, modern dance, and hockey (yes, they were desperate), I decided I needed more classroom equipment. So I went to the office of the headmaster.
C Thornton Brown was his name. We called him Thorny. But he was anything but prickly. Firm but kind, his wisdom usually broad-sided you. I would learn this through experience.
On this occasion I knocked on his always-open door, peeked in and saw him, as he often was, leaning back in his chair gazing at the Maryland October sky, a pearl in that part of the world. 'Excuse me, Thorny, do you have a minute?' I asked.
'Sure,' he said, bringing the chair and his attention forward. He smiled. He said nothing. Not one single extraneous word ever came out of that man’s mouth. I knew from the moment I met him that I should learn that from him. But I gave up early on. The odds against success in some things in life are just too great.
I plunged in, 'I need a few things for my classroom that will help me do a better job of teaching,' I said. I smiled, following his example for what to do after being breathtakingly succinct.
'Such as?' he asked.
'Well, I need a desk chair that doesn’t wobble. I need a nice wooden in-tray for letters and things, a see-through ruler, and a blotter. Oh, and coloured chalk.'
He kept looking at me and listening. But that was all I could think of to say. I had said what I needed, though not any of the reasons why, because they were obvious. Every teacher needs stuff like that. And anyway, it was that first semester when I was still trying out the idea of not going overboard in the talking department.
But he did not grant my request. Nor did he deny it. He took a long time to speak at all, but looked completely peaceful and fine. I thought maybe he was adding up the expense, so I thought about saying that I knew where we could get a used, but good, desk chair. I had seen one at the Thrift Shop down the road.
But something told me to wait. Uncharacteristically, I obeyed. I tried to look relaxed.
'Nancy,' he said gently, 'there are only four things you need in order to teach well.'
I listened. I figured the coloured chalk was already a goner.
'You need students who want to learn. You need something worthwhile to teach them. You need respect for their intelligence. And you need to be sure they speak more than you do.' I kept listening. Differently this time.
Somehow I was sure that if I could ever really understand what he had just said, it would change my life. (It was never straightforward going into Thorny’s office.)
'And,' he continued, as warmly as he had said the first thing, 'You can achieve all of those four things sitting on a log in the woods.'
And that was that. I didn’t know whether that was a no or a yes. I did know that it was as good as divine.
It did change my life. I began to understand about teaching and about learning. I began to understand that they both have very little to do with stuff and everything to do with connection.
I am still learning that.
What is your all-time favourite book? And your favourite film? And song? And place? And possession? And why?
I hope you have about 11 hours because these questions are formidable. They don’t look it. They look easy and fun. But they’re not. A bit fun, actually. But wily.
Last week Nigel Marsh interviewed me about my five favourites. His podcast, ‘The Five of My Life'1, is an ingenious idea. It requires ruthless introspection, some struggle and gingerly disclosure.
He promised a happy, light conversation. And it was, because he is a joy. He also promised psychological safety. Which there was. Because he respects individual truths.
But for me the real value of it all was the not so light juggernaut of a journey to the interview itself.
Nigel always starts with your favourite film. But I want to start with my favourite book.
Loving literature as I do, and loving beautifully written science and penetrably written philosophy, I soon could see that I would be dead before I could choose only one book. Then I realised the whole thing was my choice. Even my interpretation of ‘book’. When that sank in, I knew instantly: my all-time favourite book is The Oxford English Dictionary. (It is, of course, actually many books, as in volumes, but Nigel didn’t think that was cheating.)
The real meat of Nigel’s concept is the followup ‘why’ question. ‘Why’ takes you back. And ‘back’ can be sublime or wrenching. Or both. My book ‘back' was wholly sublime.
I fell in love with the Oxford English Dictionary as an undergraduate. In those magical years I began seriously to love words, not just as a collective in the form of sentences and books, but also as individual entities, life forms emerging through centuries. Newly smitten with the ‘life story’ of the words themselves, I soon discovered that I could immerse myself in exactly that history, that I could get (almost physically) inside the 10 massive volumes of it by becoming friends with The Oxford English Dictionary. I remember seeing for the first time that collection standing tall, beckoning me into the dedicated alcove of the elegant ‘cathedral’ that is the Scripps College Denison Library.
I spent hours and hours there. Those are now beloved memories.
Also, my mother, herself a word devotee, gave me for Christmas in my senior year, the new two-volume complete OED, (sporting an absolutely essential magnifying glass). So for more than 50 years I’ve brought that Scripps alcove with me wherever I’ve lived.
I often think, in a ‘desert island’ sort of way, that I could survive with only the OED, ever-absorbed in the chronicle, culture, and literature alive in each entry.
And these days I feel, if begrudgingly, grateful for the digitised OED. I didn’t want to like it. It is visually enervating, gasping for white space. It does not lift my aesthetic heart at all to go into its pages. But all of the richness of each entry is there still. And best of all almost every line has a ‘link’ to further material about a reference in the definition. So the OED has become a kind of GKP. Global Knowledge Portal is what this magnificent dictionary is now.
Also, you can click to hear the correct pronunciation(s). No more squinting at the diacritics.
So I forgive it its crowded digital halls. I guess.
It seems to me that the OED is a ‘wonder of the world’. Its own biography, captured compellingly in Simon Winchester’s book: The Surgeon of Crowthorne 2 shows human beings at our imaginative and indefatigable best. I love knowing, for example, that Sir James Murray and his team, the brains behind the massive project starting in 1879, worked for five years and then faced the fact that they had gotten only to the word ‘Ant’. Undaunted they competed the dictionary in 1928, after Murray’s death, true to his vision.
Their original aim of 6400 words in 4 volumes became 400,000 words in 10 volumes.
1933 saw an update. 1972 another. 1986 another. And in 2000 the digital wonder appeared.
The number of entries rises even as I write this. Just last month 650 new words appeared, including trequartista. (Which added quite a lot of sophistication to football, if you ask me.)
Frankly, I revere the Oxford English Dictionary. I would argue that it is itself an act of evolution as well as an evolutionary celebration of the rise of our form of primate life that wondrously conceptualises and speaks in words and syntax, ever-changingly and enchantingly.
In that way the OED I think helps us forgive some of our species’ monstrous acts. We are exquisite, after all.
Inside the Oxford English Dictionary we remember that.
Continuing with ‘The 5 of My Life’ 1 journey, I will confess to my favourite song.
‘Confess’ because this choice holds in one way or another almost all of who I am. But you wouldn’t think so. I have loved this song for 30 years. Only now do I understand why. It is a kind of 'song of my soul', a capturing of indelible strains of my heritage.
The song is ‘Good Ole Boys Like Me’, sung by Don Williams (written by Bob McDill).
In my early 30’s, having been trained classically and raised on classical music, and having married a classical music aficionado, I found myself falling in love with American Country Music of the early 1980’s. Concurrently I was learning about the importance of reclaiming pride in one’s heritage even if that heritage is woven with a region’s ‘original sin'. I was learning that you can repudiate the sin, work with your whole life to right it, and along the way be proud of the region, of its good, its sweet, its just.
So I was piecing together pride in being a US Southerner, a white privileged Southerner whose family of six generations, at one time slave-holding, was populated also with anti-racist and anti-sexist writing and activism over two hundred years. Inexorably I became drawn to that region’s ‘country music’.
Along the way, up against my imagined imminent ostracism from classical music colleagues and friends, I stayed true to this my newly-found part of myself, first privately listening to the country music station alone in my car (always re-setting the dial to the classical music before I got out), and then gingerly sharing it with a beloved of mine, and finally ‘coming out’ as a Country Music lover. It took courage and independent thinking to allow Don Williams, who was called the ‘Country Music songwriters’ songwriter,’ to sit in my life side by side with Mozart.
Fundamentally I was finally able to embrace the uneasy relationship between the South’s linearity and its ambiguities, between the history of its hate and the permanence of its love. This wrenching complexity is there indisputably in this song.
I chose the song first of all because I love anything, anything, that Don Williams writes, chooses or sings. I would listen to his tender bass voice if he were singing the phone book. I love this song also because it honours the unblemished beauties of the deep South – its ‘soft southern winds’, its Live Oak Trees, its Cape Jasmin, even its window screens and of course the ‘whispers of Thomas Wolfe in our heads’.
I love this song because it says that love is love wherever you find it. Love is love even inside a white, male, middle-aged, gin-saturated, Tennessean father of a ‘little man’. Even inside the ‘good ole boy’ (a moniker of worthlessness and bigotry). This song says that we can find love even in a little boy’s room with its walls covered with the heroes on the wrong side of the sin. This song stalks us as it asks, ‘What do you do with good ole boys like me?’
It is that question with its impossible paradoxes, its wrenchingly not-all-right-at-all reality that make this song my favourite. It is in its excruciating, forbidden sweetness inside the heart’s chambers that house both scars: the pain of the persecuted and the pain of the persecutor. It is in the holy requirement to loathe the inhumanity but to love the human being – to see, to honour the good inside the bad.
This song makes us ask: what do we do with ‘good ole boys’ like him? What do we do with that heinous and heavenly heritage? What do we do with its torturous twists? What do we do with the fact that the history of sin haunts the saint of the sinner?
This song and Don Williams’ rendering of it makes a sacred offering to us all: a lullaby to navigate the nightmare, to help us enfold in order to grow.
Good Ole Boys Like Me
Sung by Don Williams
Written by Bob McDill
© Universal Music Publishing Group
When I was a kid Uncle Remus would put me to bed,
With a picture of Stonewall Jackson above my head.
Then Daddy came in to kiss his little man,
With gin on his breath and a bible in his hand,
And he talked about honor and things I should know.
Then he'd stagger a little as he went out the door.
I can still hear the soft southern winds in the live oak trees
And Those Williams boys they still mean a lot to me,
Hank and Tennessee.
I guess we're all gonna be what we're gonna be,
So what do you do with good ole boys like me?
Nothing makes a sound in the night like the wind does,
But you ain't afraid if you're washed in the blood like I was.
The smell of cape jasmine through the window screen,
John R. and The Wolfman kept me company
By the light of the radio by my bed,
With Thomas Wolfe whispering in my head.
When I was in school I ran with a kid down the street,
And I watched him burn himself up on bourbon and speed,
But I was smarter than most, and I could choose.
Learned to talk like the man on the six o'clock news.
When I was eighteen, lord, I hit the road
But it really doesn't matter how far I go.
Yeah, what do you do with good ole boys like me?