Chapter 15: On Teaching & Getting Old

Categories: The End Of The Line

My first introduction to America took place in Italy, in a small medieval town by the name of Arezzo, famous for a mural by Piero della Francesca on one of its churches’ walls.  I stopped there for a night on my way from Sienna to Assisi.   In the morning I was waiting on the platform for the train to Assisi.  As the Italian government granted a very generous discount to journalists I could afford to travel first class, and took full advantage of it.  A similar discount was granted also to newlywed couples on their honeymoon, and such pairs, for whom this was a once in a life time experience, were quite conspicuous in the first class coaches by their newly tailored, badly fitted outfits.  They usually were acutely excited, sat very straight, grasping each other’s hands, rarely uttered a word and, with no exception, spent the time solving cross word puzzles.

There were not many people on the platform and conspicuous among them was a middle aged American trio – a bearded man wrapped in a motley coat glittering in myriad colors, and two ladies in jeans.  Beside them was a great pile of suitcases, each larger than the other.  At the time I was not acquainted with the American vogue of the sixties and was quite surprised when the three, who didn’t look as if they could afford such luxury, started dragging their suitcases in the direction of the first class carriage.  I lent them a hand, offered to pick up the suitcases through the window; we shared the same coach, and within a very short span of time, discovered that we liked each other.  In Assisi we found ourselves entangled in the captivating world of St. Francis, and in the orb of the celestial bliss of comradeship.  We did not plan it, but by a serendipitous stroke of luck we had arrived on All Souls Day, and as we entered the cathedral we were encountered by a choir of about 300 youngsters amidst a performance of Gregorian chants.  It was late afternoon and as soon as the sun set and the night oozed in, they all took long candles and, still chanting, held the brightly lighted candles in front as they marched in a long procession through the narrow, meandering road of this most wonderful of places.  In the morning we found ourselves high above the clouds that hovered over the green plains of Tuscany.  In the church the same choir was chanting.  Giotto’s frescoes greeted us from the walls, and a young couple who had just been married in the small chapel above St. Francis’ burial place was standing by the gate all throughout the day shaking hands with all who passed by.  It was a world full of magic and it set the tone for our lifelong, close and delightful friendship.

When I returned to Israel and told my friends about my new American acquaintances and said that they promised to stay in touch, everybody laughed at my naiveté.  “Americans always say that they shall call or write but never do,” was the common refrain.  However, “my” Americans were special, the same as the other friends I made during my forty years in America.  We kept in touch, and exchanged letters.  I gained the justified reputation as being the person with the most awful handwriting.  Nevertheless, they made the effort, read my letters and answered accordingly. 

In 1968, some years after this meeting in Assisi, I arrived in America.  I stayed over during the first night in New York, doing a chore for my aunt Pola, who sent with me baby clothes to her newly born grandson.  Fate decreed that my cousin was moving on the same day to a new apartment and could meet me only at night.  The day was mine to while away at my leisure.  A gang of street bums, each at least twice my size, asked me for money.  It was too ridiculous as all the money I had in the world was in my pocket.  I started laughing and they probably liked my response as they joined me in laughing and let me through.  Fortune went on smiling at me on my first day in America in the form of a clerk for one of the airlines, I think it was American.  Regretfully, later, in the turmoil and confusion while trying to settle in California I lost the note with his name and telephone number and thus the prospect of meeting him again.  All I remember is that he was Jewish and on principle lived in a black neighborhood, probably Harlem.  He had driven me home to introduce me to his wife but in those days I had no way of telling whether it was in Harlem or in Greenwich Village.  We drove through Manhattan and I remember as if it were yesterday how tall the skyscrapers looked from the window of his small Volkswagen.  I could never forget the pride that filled me while looking at those tall buildings, as they were built by human beings, and this made me even more proud of being a human being, of belonging to the same breed that could conceive such momentous monuments.  It was clear that even the sky was not high enough to set  limits to the human spirit, at least as long as it was free to wander at will, unbounded by fear and conventions.

Coming from a country where, in those days at least, each clerk acted as if he was a king and each patron was treated as a menace, my California experience was tantamount to a cultural shock.  In Israel, almost all bureaucrats, in government, municipalities or banks treated each customer as a nuisance barging in, unwanted and unwelcome, intrusive visitors in the midst of their lofty reveries.  In California on the other hand, I found that the whole society, from local and federal workers to gas station attendants, was distinguished by an intrinsic disposition for helping other people.  In those days I could recite passages from Shakespeare but got lost in the mundane everyday language.  However, as soon as I started classes in Claremont Graduate School, I was approached by another student, who had just finished a stretch of missionary work in Yugoslavia, offering me his and his wife’s help in editing my papers.  God knows that with my English I needed their help.  A similar offer was extended to me also by another student who even gave me a key to his office so that I could use his typewriter at night (those were the pre-computer days).  Ted and I remain close friends still.  I later learned that there were quite a few Jewish students in the classes, but not one of them ever offered me his help.  To this day, I don’t know whether the reason was my being an Israeli, a different kind of a Jew, or because they were afraid that I might take advantage of their good will.

Some years later, when teaching at the Catholic University of Detroit, I once said to a friend that at least in my perception, the difference between Europe and America was that Europe was Christian while America had people with Christian spirit.  (I later changed my mind after meeting some of the Jesuits at that school).  Contrary to my previous experience in Jerusalem, in Claremont the doors at the professor’s homes and offices were open and students were welcomed at all times.  Students often visited their teachers and the professors often dropped by a student’s residence for a chat.  America was just perfect.  When I ran out of money a new friend, John, offered me a place in the cellar of his family’s house on the outskirts of Claremont.  However, I chose to live outside the house, in their backyard, in what used to be dressing rooms under a water reservoir that at some time was turned into a swimming pool.  At the time they were not being used.  I moved in my things and settled in one of the “dressing rooms.”   Later I learned that they extended to me the kind of hospitality which they themselves experienced upon their arrival from Sweden.  The plumber who worked for days to fix the faulty water system in their newly purchased house there did not charge them a penny, and did the job as a welcome present when he learned that they were new immigrants.  I also learned that the same plumber, who had a taste for very fancy and expensive sport cars, adopted two Jewish children who survived the holocaust when he heard about them from a TV program.  I lived happily under the swimming pool, sharing the backyard with three horses, a donkey, a goat and a flock of chickens.  In this dressing room, under the swimming pool, I wrote most of my doctoral dissertation.  California was the place where my friends from Italy, Eileen, Helen and Arnold lived.  California was the place to be. 

My “Italian” friends probably liked me very much as they managed to stay in close touch with me during their whole lifetime.  I must have been a very difficult person to deal with.  Americans are constrained, guarded and shielded by a profusion of rituals.  I, on the other hand, am impervious to any kind of rituals, body language and insinuations.  What might be even worse, I don’t remember the faces and the names of most people I meet, and during the years must have offended many people who could not be aware of my social shortcomings.  It had a lasting effect on my social life, especially at the times I lived by myself, on my academic career and also on my relationships with women, although there, sexual attraction, curiosity and infatuation often managed to overcome any shortcomings.  I liked women and sex; matter of fact I adore women, the mode and beauty of their feminine character and behavior never ceases to amaze me.  Together with the operas of Mozart, Verdi and Rossini and the chamber music of Beethoven, the way women move appeals to my highest sense of aesthetic sensibility.  From early age I noticed that even visibly loathsome characters had no problem getting the favors of most desired women, just because they desired them, and decided that there was nothing to boast about just for sleeping with many women.  I preferred relationships over one night stands and rarely got tempted to take advantage of opportunities, for that reason – not wishing to just play the role of a service bull.  However, maybe I could afford to hold such lofty ideals because I rarely was out of relationships.  Now, when it is too late, I think that probably I was wrong and most likely missed a lot of fun.  Only I was too bookish to peruse fun for the sake of fun.  Now, when I am old, sick, and no longer attractive I think that the worst thing in getting old is the recognition that I shall no longer experience again the joy and the pain of falling in love.

The American friends I made in Italy were artists, less bound by social conventions. They had no problem accepting me as I am.  The two women were Arnold Schifrin’s students in UCLA and they came to Italy with him in order to plan a group painting trip.  Later I learned that in Arnold’s circles they considered me the only friend he ever had who was not a painter.  Any work of art is part of a dialogue between the artist and his audience, as well as between previous and future artists.  When a work of art manages to be so subjective that it breaks the barrier between subjective and objective it becomes credible and authentic, however, it becomes a beautiful work mainly when the artist had managed to solve a technical problem in a satisfactory way.  Such questions were mostly the topic of our discussions and exchange of ideas.  Our last telephone conversation dealt with the fact that an artist should be able to go through his most painful sensations in order to make his oeuvre credible.  We agreed that if an artist holds himself back because the pain is too unbearable, the chances are that his work will be kitschy, at best.
Eileen was the first of the trio to die.  The noble and beautiful Helen Sheats moved away from the old Mexican church in Santa Monica, California, which she had turned into a home and a studio, and I lost track of her.  Regretfully, I don’t even have any of her paintings.  Arnold died a few years ago, in the same month in which he planned to visit me in North Carolina.  However, he still speaks to me daily through his paintings on my walls.

The time I spent in California and Claremont bestowed on me an almost continuous cultural shock.  In Israel the feeling was that a lot of effort was put into making life difficult.  In California good will topped so many of the problems that in Israel seemed to be impenetrable.  School also furnished a shock.  My teachers in Israel, such as Jacob Talmon and Joshua Prawer, were first class scholars, but after six years of studying with the same teachers I was ready for a change.  In this regard Claremont was a gold mine.  After lifelong teaching at Columbia University Herbert Schneider retired to Claremont and soon became my mentor.  Leo Straus retired to Claremont from the University of Chicago and opened his house to me.  Other teachers, like Harry Jaffa were inspiring, raising new questions and constantly questioning their previous answers.  Besides, even though Jerusalem was a beautiful place, with the profusion of politicians, government offices and Knesset members, it had lost much of its charm.  Claremont, on the other hand, was a small place with five colleges.  The whole town had the character of a university campus.  In Jerusalem, only a small percentage of students could afford to spend all their time studying in the library.  In Claremont, at least in the Graduate School, the students dedicated all their time to studying.  Above all towered the close relationship between teachers and students.  Later, in my teaching years I tried to emulate the spirit of such a relationship.  In Detroit it indeed worked well and students felt free to visit me at all hours of the day.  Sometimes a group of students would land in my apartment late in the evening only to continue an argument they started earlier in their place, and together we could finish the day by having an early breakfast in one of the restaurants around.  In Vancouver only some students took advantage of my approach, however, one of the students contacted me 26 years after graduating, because he owed me a paper that he promised to submit but never did, and all those years it lay on his conscience.  He submitted it then and it was a good paper, although by then there was no point in grading it.  In North Carolina where I was at that time, very few students took advantage of my open house.  The South was very different from what I had experienced before, but maybe I also had changed.

I think that I was a reasonably good teacher and would like to believe that at least some of my students learned how to approach a text and the technique of critical reading of any text.  Teaching comes naturally to me because of my innate tendency to assist people.  As long as I am the giver I feel fulfilled.  However, I feel less secure in normal human relationships, and completely lost when I am not independent.  As far as playing the academic game is concerned I would give myself the grade of zero or one out of ten, at best.  First of all – I had been almost completely oblivious to the existence of such a game.  Being exceptionally naïve, to the point of stupidity, I believed that becoming a university professor meant an opportunity to dedicate all your time to study and research.  I was completely oblivious to the existence of academic intrigues, and only after a few years of teaching became aware of the somewhat foolish maxim of ‘publish or perish.”  I assume that everybody took this rule so much for granted that nobody bothered to mention it to me.  I published a bit but only when something interested me enough to explore the topic and express my opinion.  Also, I was hardly involved in the mundane affairs of the department.  One such example was meeting in a convention a professor I used to know at Claremont.  When I wondered why it had been quite a while since I saw him last he hardly believed that I was serious.  It turned out that he left his wife for his secretary and because of it raised the ire of the rest of the faculty.  Claremont was a small place; the Graduate School was even smaller.  Not that they were so chaste.  The gossip about “key games” among the faculty was abundant, but divorcing a wife for a secretary was probably different.  It seemed that at least for about a year everybody talked about the antagonism among the teachers that eventually even forced him to resign.  I probably was the only person in the school who never heard and was not aware of it.  It was quite typical. 

The philosophy department at the Catholic University of Detroit was the nicest place I ever encountered in my academic career, but after teaching there for a year a Jesuit professor returned from some mission and replaced me.  I moved to the history department and was an easy target to intrigues whose existence were unknown to me.  The year was 1973 when many private universities, like the University of Detroit, got into monetary difficulties and laid off many faculty members.  I found myself out of a job.   A good friend of mine, a thoracic surgeon who, among his other jobs managed also a department in a private hospital, arranged a night job for me in his department where I spent most of the time reading and studying.  After about a year or two the hospital was bought by another group that wanted to give it a more respectable image and demanded from all, including night workers, to wear uniforms.  Now, I have never liked uniforms.  They are supposed to furnish all concerned people with a uni-form – to erase all ostensibly individual identities.  Even during my years of service in the army I wore uniforms only two or three times, at the most, but I was of course lucky that the times and the conditions allowed me such conduct.  When wearing uniforms in the hospital was enforced, with no exceptions, I immediately quit, to the chagrin of my friends who knew that I had no other income and not much of a chance of getting another job.  However, for me it was a matter of principle.  I felt that I could not and should not betray myself.  Nevertheless, it seems that at least one or some of the ancient gods that after being removed from office found a refuge in the mountains towering above Vancouver liked my approach.  Out of the blue one of my letters inquiring about a possible teaching position got a positive response.  The University of British Columbia needed somebody in a hurry as in the last moment the teacher they had engaged before decided to stay in New York.  For nine years I studied European history and philosophy and made some use of it at the University of Detroit, but in Vancouver they needed a teacher of Judaic Studies and since then I confined my interests mainly to Jewish history and philosophy.

Vancouver was good to me.  I made some very good friends and my girlfriend there, although almost thirty years younger than I, had been a warm and good friend.  With her I learned, for the first time, the pleasure of holding hands and of hugging.  However, during my seventh year of teaching there all members of the faculty decided to get rid of the head and founder of the department.  In the best tradition of academic intrigues they spent their time denouncing him in ridiculous letters sent to all concerned.  I kept my neutrality and was therefore subjected to the ire and resentment of both sides.  The result was that I did not get tenure and had to leave Vancouver.

My next and last teaching position was at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington.  Unlike the universities in Detroit and Vancouver and the main campus of the university in Chapel Hill, this branch resembled more a high school than a university.  It had some good teachers but not enough good students – a good percentage of them were basically illiterate, and as the level of a university is established by the quality of its students, it felt, at least to me, as playing the role of an institute of higher education rather than being one.  The fault, of course, was with the high schools.  The result was that many students who graduated from the university were more skilled in surfing the ocean’s waves than in academics.  In the first semester I taught a senior seminar, and as was my custom, I assigned to different students texts to present in class, to be followed by a wide discussion among all students.  Unlike the situations I was accustomed to, it turned out that nobody in the class understood even the simple texts I assigned in the beginning, texts like The Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov.  It happened with the first, the second, and the third presentation – nobody understood the text.  I despaired from them and they lost heart as far as I was concerned.  And then I discovered that nobody ever taught them to read a text on their own.  Each time they had a reading assignment they were given a questionnaire with something like ten points to look for in the text.  For most of them it was their last semester and they could not read a text on their own!  As I introduced them to the techniques of reading a text and writing a paper I discovered that the class consisted of some very good students and some of the papers they wrote at the end of the semester were good enough for Ivy League schools.  What impressed me then was the fact that the book most of the students liked best was I and Thou by Martin Buber.  The trouble was that almost all the brilliant students graduated at the end of the year.  I no longer was asked to teach at the senior level and most of the time I felt like I was teaching in a kindergarten.  Considering that it claimed to be a university I graded students according to the level I expected from such an institution, although I gave them a chance to rewrite their papers with the help of assistance in the English department.  Still, I gave a lot of C’s and D’s to students that got A’s from all other teachers, and they graded me accordingly in their evaluation sheets.  Also I published an article in the local paper, meant to start a discussion about the level of teaching in the high schools but all understood it as criticism of the university.  I got a good number of dirty letters and e-mails, including life threats.  It probably also had a role in the decision not to grant me tenure.  However, by then I had there a very nice house, befriended my medical doctors and got a superb medical treatment.  Also, Wilmington was only about ten hours drive from New York City where I drove quite often to visit the museums, attend opera performances and take some photographs.  All that justified staying there for over fifteen years before, superannuated, moving back to Vancouver.

Author: Moshe Amon