When I was a senior at Klein Forest High School in northwest Houston, I was in an English class in which I could read what I chose, choose what I wrote, and think as I pleased.
It was the hardest and best course I ever took.
I am not sure if that course would be allowed on this planet anymore, so I am crazy-grateful that I had a teacher named Mrs. Naomi Fanett (One “N” and Two “Ts,” as she would say) who let us pursue a particular theme and develop a reading list so that we could start addressing the big questions in life, and stop filling out scan-tron quizzes, a fate that was surely waiting for us in the regular classes. The class was called “English Quest,” and about 15 of us read book after book, not because we had to, but because we wanted to.
All of us had our quirks and petty rivalries, but we were unified on one front: we all adored Naomi Fanett. She had great big glasses and huge smiling eyes, and she loved William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson. But this was the genius of her teaching: she made us love them too. Several of us confessed that she was one of the only teachers we remember who seemed to really like her students, really loved her job, and she respected us and what we thought. She wasn’t willing to write us off at 16 or 17 years old, even if we made mistakes or were off the mark. She would tell us about The New Yorker in a way that made you think you were already sophisticated enough to read it and enjoy it. She understood what learning was all about.
Awhile ago we had a reunion of some of the members of this class. We met in a cheery Mexican restaurant in Northwest Houston, and Mrs. Fanett and her husband caught up with five of us about thirty years after that class was held. I have to tell you: she looks exactly the same, which lends a lot to my credo and desperate hope that Teaching Keeps You Young. It certainly has held true for her. I was so happy to see her, so happy to tell her how much she meant to me, and how influential her teaching has been in my own classes with hundreds of college students at five universities.
I think that I can safely argue that many public American high schools seem to be well armed fortresses that are safely protected from an infiltration of too much intellectualism. But in Mrs. Fanett’s class, you were in an oasis of interesting thoughts and interesting people who were reading interesting books, and what was uncool in the hall was ubercool in her class. I am quite sure it was my favorite part of my day, because if we weren’t reading or writing, we were presenting and discussing, just like graduate students, and I kept reading more and more. The reason I kept reading more was because after John would talk about Othello or Denise would talk about Bertrand Russell, I would go right out and read Othello, because I was just shocked that Desdemona was actually killed. And then I wouldn’t read Bertrand Russell, because it was so long and intimidating, but it would hit me like a ton of bricks that although I knew nothing about philosophy, maybe I should. This was pivotal for Miss Makes Pretty Good Grades to realize that there were actually vast empires of knowledge that I didn’t even know were on the map. This is important: sometimes, you have to know what you don’t know. But in Mrs. Fanett’s class, you always knew you could learn more, that there was no end to it, there was always something new and fascinating to read, and that maybe you wouldn’t be homecoming queen or head cheerleader, but you would also never, ever be bored.
She firmly subscribed to the proverb that students were lamps to be lighted and not vessels to be filled. She didn’t have to make a list of books for us and dictate that we read them. We all gravitated to famous classics on our own–we wanted to read rock star authors who had stood the test of time, and her emphasis on quality literature made us interested in those works because they were exciting. We did nothing under duress, and I read more in that class than I ever read in a semester of graduate school for a course. What can I say? She had definitely lit the lamp in me, and I never wanted it to burn out.
Susie reminded me that her theme was Love and Romance, and that she read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, not only to discover that this guy was not very chatty, but also that the novel, anti-climactically enough, did not even seem very naughty. When Susie was emailing me about this, I couldn’t help but think: what I wouldn’t give for an undergraduate who has heard of and actually read D. H. Lawrence. This is the unwitting genius of academic freedom: you learn things.
The thing that kills me is that I was not alone in thinking that this class was a monumental, memorable experience. All of us who met two weeks ago felt that way. All of us went on to use things we learned from Mrs. Fanett. John became a principal, but really, in my mind, a hero, because his specialty is coming in and turning around failing schools. He is doing that right now in Houston.Sometimes I spend hours thinking about this, and how many students he has saved from falling through the cracks by saving their schools from incompetent educators. I think this is a form of saving their lives.
Susie teaches science at a prep school in Arkansas, and I think she and I both caught the enthusiasm fever from Mrs. Fanett, because we both are psyched about teaching in a way that I think is essential if you are going to do it for the long haul. But you have to see that intensity in action in order to know how to channel that energy, and Mrs. Fanett always made you feel like what you were doing mattered. Lisa works in a huge church in northwest Houston, where I am sure her communication skills are crucial in her outreach efforts, skills Mrs. Fanett made seem so manageable as she made us write and speak so often that it became more like second nature than a living nightmare. And Denise, who will never know how much her comments would jolt me in high school, has become a super successful speech pathologist in Austin. This path seems deliciously perfect to me, as in class she would say the most unorthodox things, and my jaw would drop, and then I would go home and think about what she had said as I was drifting off to sleep, realizing that 9 times out of 10 she was absolutely right. Just because I had never thought of it before didn’t make it any less true. So she was already the class speech pathologist, saving us from the pathology of suburbanspeak, where we would parrot what we thought the world wanted to hear, and reap the temporary but often hollow rewards of such a performance. Instead, she would say what she really thought, and sometimes, I just couldn’t believe it.
Only in English Quest could we have that kind of freedom, and if there is another way to have that kind of experience, where you are unafraid to speak and think and read and write, I would love to hear about it, because I am pretty sure that is the only way to go. We learned so much that was not on the syllabus, which right now in higher education is so frowned upon that if you do anything beyond what is written down and distributed on the first day of class, you can pretty much count on some sort of protest. And so really, simmer down with that mid term epiphany you might have had that would totally benefit your students’ intellectual growth, because clearly that is not on the syllabus. Mrs. Fanett taught us, in the kindest way possible, that the hard cold truth is that there is no other syllabus in life other that the one you create yourself and decide to follow. People tell you otherwise, because they want you to follow their prescriptions, but let me save you some grief and tell you right now that they are lying. You have to read what great minds have written, and then write your own script, and that is what she allowed us all to do.
When we were unprepared, or late with an assignment, we could take a penalty and still do it, but we had to write a “Dear Mrs. Fanett” letter that had to be informative and entertaining and well written. So instead of just getting an “F,” we still had the benefit of the assignment, still had more practice writing, still learned instead of just being punished. Now I have flexible deadlines, because some of my most creative students cannot meet a deadline to save their lives, but they are the best writers imaginable, and I really don’t want to police them, I want to encourage them. There is no reason for the perfect to be the enemy of the good. I know all about that study that says that doesn’t work, but it depends on the student: I will take late excellence over on-time mediocrity any day. I know other professors don’t agree with this, but it does work, and they were not lucky enough to have been taught by Mrs. Fanett. I am so glad she had a way to keep smart students motivated, and she always had a solution for any perceived problem.
There was also a degree of tacit competition between some of us, I mean we were strong students, and she had this assignment that made us write compliments about each other. This taught me a lot about how to think about other people, and I think that Mrs. Fanett was trying to teach us something elegantly simple but profound: what is the point of studying the humanities if it is not accompanied by becoming more human and humane? I will never forget writing those compliments, and reading what those who saw me everyday thought about me. In the minefield of defense mechanisms that high school can be, this was a way to relax our facades and make us more authentic, but in a kind way. We didn’t have to reveal terrible thoughts, because those were overshadowed by the more important things she wanted us to remember about each other.
I work in a world where I have to listen to a lot of “experts” who are obsessed with assessment and use words like “incent.” They want me to translate everything I do into some sort of numerical equation that can fit nicely into a report. They want to take my student papers and prove that we had a 27% improvement in writing skills over a certain period of time. I want to tell these people that every writing project is like visiting a new country, and that sometimes things go well, and sometimes there are disasters, but every page is a new city to conquer, and it is an adventure that never ends. Sometimes words fail to translate what we know. That doesn’t mean we haven’t learned anything, and it doesn’t mean that those words don’t come to us much later. If I had “assessed” Naomi Fanett’s class in high school, I would have given her all “10s” on a ratings page, but those numbers still would not have done her justice. I might have written “I loved this class!” and made a little circle over the ‘i’ since I was a silly teenager and didn’t know any better. But that too would have revealed very little about the impact her teaching had on me and everyone else in that class.
So this is my assessment of “English Quest”: When I write, I use a vocabulary that is infinitely better than the one I would have had without Mrs. Fanett. When I read, I am in a divine frenzy and cannot wait to tell my students about it. And when I go to work, I am an English professor.
She didn’t have to “incent” any of us, and I am not even sure that should be a real word. All of us who were in her class read something, every day, and it has been thirty years since that class was in session. This was the class where I first read F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, and I have been thinking and writing about it ever since. I didn’t know, sitting in her class, taking notes, accumulating words, thinking of places I had never been, that I would write an entire dissertation on Fitzgerald and modernism, but that is exactly what happened. Naomi Fanett taught us to think about the big questions, but more than that, she made us realize that there is a quest in every question, and that it never really ends, and this is a gift that will never fit into any assessment scheme, because it cannot be contained, cannot be quantified. We don’t have the numbers for it.
I cannot put into words how meaningful it was to see the people I studied with in her class, and I think part of it is that in English Quest we had to start figuring out what “meaningful” really means.
John tells me Naomi Fanett practiced what should be a model for constructivist pedagogy. I tell him I am so happy to see him, and that we should see a play soon. In other words, I think he is right.
When we left the restaurant, we all planned to meet again, and the best thing is that we really mean it. That is because we learned in English Quest how powerful words can be, and we don’t abuse them, don’t take them lightly, are happy to know that they can bring you far out into the world, and then back to places you want to revisit, want to remember. You would bronze them and put them on a shelf if you could, but you cannot, so you just say them, happy that you can, even after a very long time.