Regular readers of this magazine likely know that I spent 13 years teaching high school in Brooklyn, NY, before moving to Antigua. They also probably know that shortly after arriving here I’d generated an enormous bar tab, and had to put myself into indentured servitude in the mezcal bar of Café No Sé to try and pay it off. And I’d be willing to bet that, over the years, a number of you have heard me joke that the two jobs require remarkably similar skill sets, because in both positions you have to know when to let the kids run a bit wild and have a good time, but also how to pull back on the reins when everything starts to go pear-shaped and sideways. And in either a Brooklyn classroom or a dark Guatemala bar, you often feel like you should be armed.
Any number of times down here, across the bar and in quieter conversations, I’ve been asked why I became a teacher. And I’ve been thinking about it lately as I approach the 20th anniversary of my first time in front of a classroom. The simple answer is: Mr. Burns, my high school Shakespeare teacher. The more dramatic answer is a retelling of the time when Mr. Burns first cracked my thick skull open with a particularly deft bit of magical compassion and saw some light shining through.
My hometown, Binghamton, NY, is a small city, so it’s no surprise that Mr. Burns, aside from being my teacher, was also a family friend, and one who lived a remarkable, adventurous life: World War II veteran, businessman, mayor of our hometown, friend to Bobby Kennedy, poet, painter, advocate for the mentally ill. And in his late fifties, wanting for a new kick, he became an English teacher at our local high school. By the time I had him as a teacher he’d been there for ten years or so, yet he still loved teaching and had passion for the job. Years later, as I watched fellow teachers flame-out within months, I came to understand how rare such a long-burning fire in the belly really is.
Teaching is a very hard job. It’s rewarding if you’re doing it right, but still it’s a job that carries lousy pay, crazily early mornings (what other job expects you to be at your desk and to function with a group of sullen teenagers at 7:15?), constant late-night headaches of paperwork and lesson planning, the more-than-occasional sociopathic colleague, the incessant ridiculum of office politics and a hierarchy of superiors, many of whom chose a path in administration when they discovered that they hated children.
There’s no getting around those realities, so if a teacher is going to keep their drive and their passion, they’ve got to have something else to spin their jets. Mr. Burns had it, and he inspired it in me.
It wasn’t until my senior year that I finally got Mr. Burns as a teacher. He was running an elective on Shakespeare and I wanted in. The word in the halls was that Mr. Burns was cool, and also that he was “an easy A.” Moreover, I’d been doing some acting in the school’s Shakespeare Club for a few years — as were many of my artsy, intellectual, adventurous and chemically-altered friends. At the time I wasn’t a bad kid, just kinda wayward, and if Shakespeare was a way to hang around after class with my friends, then fantastic! Bring on the Bard.
I remember digging school for the social scene, but academically . . . I just didn’t really care. I didn’t see much of a point, and I had a solid low-70s average to prove it. If the teacher was cool, I’d have fun and maybe learn a little bit. If the teacher was a jerk, then I’d block away incoming information like the Karate Kid. I took the entire academic experience without much concern. It was all, “much ado about nothing,” as far as I could tell.
But from the start, Mr. Burns’ class was different. With Bill, as I came to know him in the last few years of his life, there was utterly no sense of authority — which made it flat-out impossible to rebel against him. He treated his students with civility and decency (though he did possess a wicked “teacher’s glare” if you did anything mean-spirited). This method worked wonders with me, to the point where I took it upon myself to be his friend and ally in class if things started to get too far out of hand.
Our three big works that semester were Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Lear. In class we would sometimes read aloud for a few minutes. On Fridays we’d do something distantly akin to acting. Most nights we had a few pages to read, but the course didn’t hurt the brain and you could get away without studying much text. There was never a sense of great pressure, and at least half of the time in class we’d just talk about stuff. More often than not Mr. Burns would start class by telling a story about his family, often about his wife, Ellen, or their children, one of whom lived in the State Hospital up on the hill, institutionalized for most of his adult life as a schizophrenic. Or he’d ask us about love. In particular I remember the day that Bill asked whom amongst us believed in love at first sight. My girlfriend at the time, Karla, and I looked at one another and our hands shot straight up. Bill loved Karla and me, and when he saw us sitting in the back row with our hands reaching for the sky, he smiled and told us about when he first laid eyes on sweet Ellen.
There were some deeper, maybe darker, classes, too, spent discussing the cruelty of Fate or God or Chance. Or even if there was a God, and if so, how He could he treat His own creation with such heightened disregard. We spoke about what children should expect from their parents and what they owe in return. Then there was the class when Mr. Burns spoke of the bonds that can exist between the young and the very old — and personally, I like to think that he slipped that one in there just for Karla and me. I’d enjoyed these conversations thoroughly and obviously saw that there was some overlap between our talks and our text, but up until the day that I walked into class to find Mr. Burns staring out the window overlooking Oak Street, nothing much of it had really sunk in. Still, in his class, I was afforded the opportunity to speak and to be listened to. In return I got to share in Bill’s particular wisdom and Karla’s natural and deeply human insight. And even to gain some valuable fodder for deeper thinking through classmates’ comments from time to time.
But what seemed back then to be conversations designed for their ease, I came to understand as Bill’s pre-surgical prep for the time that he’d bust my head open in a way that I simply couldn’t have understood before the windowsill and the momentary madness that followed.
Ask any teacher and they’ll tell you that the reason we keep coming back, day after day, is for that moment of crystallization — that global process — when the lights suddenly go on inside one of our kids. It isn’t the kid getting the proper answer to question number three, it’s watching the tumblers click into place on a whole range of connected thoughts. Later in my professional life, and with the lessons of Mr. Burns fully integrated into my own teaching style, I came to recognize a kid who is right at the cusp of understanding. It’s like you can start to hear it in their voices when they ask certain questions leading up to bigger things. Or you can spy, just over the valley, the first wisps of smoke that, if encouraged, can become the prairie fire of participation in the larger human conversation.
With me it happened on a Friday in the late-middle of the Spring Semester. The trees were blooming. I walked into the class a few minutes before the bell wearing my standard-issue uniform of ripped Levis, a dashiki and wraparound sunglasses. Karla was already in her seat in the back of the room. The other kids were milling about, and Mr. Burns, white-maned, bearded and ancient, sat staring intently out the window. I said hellos to a few classmates and sat down next to Karla as the bell rang. The class quieted a bit, but Mr. Burns didn’t move. He just kept staring out the window. After a few minutes the relative silence of a class waiting for the teacher gave way to breaking waves of noise. Still Mr. Burns just kept staring out the window as the volume grew. After five very long minutes, paper airplanes were flying and general mayhem was breaking loose. Karla looked at me and said, “Do you think Mr. Burns is all right?”
I told her I’d go check.
I walked over to the window to ask him if he was okay, but without looking at me, still staring out the window at a giant oak tree, he said, “Michael . . . do you see it?”
The tree? What the hell?
“The tree? Yes, I see the tree, Mr. Burns.”
“Not just the tree. Do you see it?”
We both sat staring out the window for a moment, then he got up slowly, squeezed my arm avuncularly and suddenly sprung about like a lion tamer towards the class, cracked the whip of his voice and in a flash he’d transformed room 417-A of Binghamton High School into the maelstrom of the English Moors.
Lear: Act III, Scene ii.
“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Raaaaage! Blow!” he bellowed, and I swear to Christ that he spun every atom to attention within the sound of his voice.
“You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!”
Startled, I turned, to him. But I could still see the tree, persistence of vision, standing in inverted colors, all around him.
“You sulphurous and thought-executing fires, vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving THUNDER-BOLTS, Singe! My! White! Head!
He mock tore at his clothing. The tree exploded.
“And thou, all-shaking thunder, strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world! Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once that make ingrateful man! Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain! Nor rain, wind, thunder . . . FIRE ARE MY DAUGHTERS!”
The class was stunned, silent. He turned towards me, and his eyes were burning into mine. He paused . . . then softer:
“I tax not you, you elements with unkindness; I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children, you owe me no subscription.”
He had quieted to near muteness, and the red oval around the sclera made it look like his own eyes were causing him a deadly pain. He said slowly, sadly, heartbrokenly:
“ . . . then . . . let fall your horrible pleasure; here I stand . . . your slave . . . a poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man.”
He was shattered. I wanted to reach out and catch him in my arms. My jaw was hanging slack; I didn’t know fully where I was. Something had happened. I knew what he meant. He knew I knew.
Leaving the Mad King on the moors, Mr. Burns nodded his head towards the window and The Tree, and I felt as if I’d just been offered a gold-inlayed invitation to humanity and its long, long conversation.
Let Olivier sail, I met my Lear, and he loved me as much as he always loved Cordelia — as much as he still loved Regan and Goneril, their spite be damned. And all those conversations about children and parents, about love, about family made sense in the larger context of our shared humanity.
He was Lear. He was my good ‘nuncle. He was Mr. Burns. I was his favorite boy. All those previous conversations had been the natural kindling to the prairie fire that was lit that day. In a moment so much clicked into place — tumblers fell.
What I understood then about the tree sounds rather new-agey, I suppose, but I’ll stand by it. Mr. Burns saw the whole of the tree, and in an act of radical, violent compassion that softened immediately to love, he taught me to see it, as well. That tree was all trees and it was as tied to the world as we are to one another. The tree is the home it makes for the birds, the acorns it drops for the squirrels to eat, the shade it gives on the blazing days of summer, the wood it might provide when all has turned to ice. He saw in it the Platonic perfection of a tree, the tree that exists in our minds, the mind that reaches out to find other connections between crazed old men on the moors, the fools that travel with them, the children whom God or Fate or Chance has cursed to true insanity, the love of family, the need for faith in human kindness, the bonds that can exist between the young and the very old. The ultimate sap and the firmest glue of our existence: compassion, empathy.
And over the years, and what would later become my career, he’d planted the seed of understanding that teachers should not try to crack open the thick skulls of teenagers to pound facts and figures in, but rather more importantly, to let the light pour out.
About five years later, after I’d graduated from university, I was back in Binghamton vaguely planning to go to law school. My father had a fundraiser for his latest campaign, and as business kept him in Albany it fell to the rest of the family to greet the guests and thank them for their support. I’d been doing this stuff for years, and really rather enjoyed it. But there was one guy that I always made sure to spend most of my time with, and that was Mr. Burns. I hadn’t seen him much since graduating a few years back, and when I found him seated up near the band, he again avuncularly grabbed my arm and sat me down. We chatted about politics local and national. We chatted about Shakespeare and he asked me how Karla was doing, I told him she was well, but that we weren’t dating anymore. Bill gave me a smile that told me he was sorry, but that the world would keep turning.
The front man for the band was a singer named Vic Lacatena, Democratic Committee Chair and County Legislator, and he did old standards from the Rat Pack. When Vic cut loose with “Fly Me To the Moon,” Bill said with a smile, “Do you hear it?”
It was like coming home. “I hear it, Bill. I hear it.”
We listened to the music together, his hand on my leg. After half an hour or so, I got up to finish my rounds. He took my hand, and I felt his bones like they were already coming apart. I didn’t know it at the time, maybe he didn’t either, but he was dying of cancer. I suggested that he and Ellen and Karla and I should have a picnic when the weather turned. I was committed to it, but life got in the way and we never made a date. That was the last time I ever saw him.
Bill’s throat cancer progressed pretty swiftly that year, and as life does occasionally mimic narrative form, Karla was volunteering on his ward at Lourdes Hospital around the time that he died. In fact, she was the last person to see Bill alive. He came out of his room to go outside and have a smoke. They saw one another and she gave him a hug. He went and had his last cigarette, then returned to his room and died of a heart attack a few minutes later.
It was Karla who called me with the news.
A few days later Ellen contacted me to ask that I speak at his memorial dinner representing all of the students’ whose lives Mr. Burns had touched over the years. I was honored, and while preparing my remarks I decided to dump the idea of law school and apply to get my master’s in teaching. It’s a thought common amongst teachers. The one that says: “If I could do for one student what Mr. Burns did for me, then there might be some balance in the world.” The bulk of the speech was what I’ve just related above, about The Tree and The Song and The Picnic that Never Was.
I thought that was it. I thought the final lesson was that we’ve only got a brief candle of time to strut and fret upon the stage, a small window of existence before we’re heard no more — and that we’d better seize those moments before they’re gone forever. And that’s a damn good lesson. But I discovered much later that there was still something more from Bill.
It happened during a class on Ancient Mesopotamia when one of my kids, David, looked up as I was finishing a dramatic recitation of the first book ever written, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. It’s the oldest extant narrative text, the most ancient tale which — beautifully, symmetrically — was originally titled “Sha Naqba Īmuru” or “He who Saw the Deep.”
Earlier in the semester David didn’t seem to be a particularly attentive student, but the ghosts were rising in him, and I’d taken note. We’d spent the previous weeks “talking about stuff” like humility, love and the infinite weight of grief.
And five thousand years after Gilgamesh first walked east through the Great Cedar Forest of Babylon on his way home to Uruk, crushed by the death of his spiritual brother, Enkidu, wracked by the disappointments of having failed the tests of Utnapishtim, broken by the theft of his final gift at the mouth of Ningizita the Eternal Snake of the Waters, David got it. Or to catch the argot of this tale, he saw it. Not just the story of an ancient king determined, finally, to justice and love, but of all stories. And as Gilgamesh passed through the gates of his kingdom, I could see it in his eyes, both of us nearly in tears.
I don’t give a damn if you believe me. Hamlet saw ghosts; Gilgamesh and Enkidu had their monsters to slay; Ophelia danced with flowers in her hair. But this is true: As I climbed down from the makeshift stage we’d built with two rows of desks in room 423 of F.D.R. High School in Brooklyn, as David took my hand to steady me, I saw light pouring out from a fresh crack in his thick, teenage skull.
Amigos, Mr. Burns’ last lesson was the understanding that Shakespeare only told one lie, and this is it: Fin.
The conversation continues. The story moves onward and outward, searching each new generation for its players, pulling them from the audience on the dark, storm-tossed moors of Binghamton, the Great Cedar Forests of Brooklyn, New York.