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Secrets of a Teacher

May 29, 1994|JACK MILES

"He said he'd been a kid in high school in Los Angeles. It was World War II, a few months after Pearl Harbor. He was a gymnast at Belmont High. There were lots of Japanese American kids in his school. He'd grown up with them . . . playing baseball, stealing hubcaps, trying to get dates, when, all of a sudden, one morning, all the Japanese American kids were gone! Just gone. He couldn't believe it. Our government had taken all of them, rounded them up like cattle and marched them off into trains and shipped them away to God-knows-where, to Kingdom Come, to concentration camps in the desert. His schoolmates were stunned, but everyone seemed to accept it after a while. His father raged about it at home. He felt it was a crummy deal.

"Bert knew about it. He could tell me. He could look into my eyes and see into the history I was not myself ready to address, to bring up, to live by, and he told me it was all right. He knew part of my story, the part no one else knew or seemed to want to know, and he would help me with it. He was telling me that."

Bert Meyers, a Sephardic Jew whose parents had come to Los Angeles from Spain via Brooklyn, knew why Garrett Hongo was pissed off at a time in Hongo's life when Hongo himself did not know. Yes, Hongo's parents had been in the camps. This was to be one of Hongo's subjects, among those that would win him the Lamont prize in 1987, but he didn't know it yet. How did Meyers know it? He couldn't, in fact, have had more than a hunch, but such hunches only come to teachers who are watching their students' every move, thinking about them with intelligence and love, and willing to push them to the brink to open their eyes. That kind of teacher tends also to be the kind who insists, with the aggressive edge that Meyers brought to his discussion of Whitman, that "it doesn't matter" whether you are gay or straight, or Asian or Caucasian, or name your polar pair.

Why does it work this way? Because only those who believe that group identity is secondary acquire the habit of attending to the individual as primary. Not all Japanese American writers are called to write about ethnic identity. With the wrong Japanese American student, Meyers' "I know why you're pissed off" could have been a clumsy and perhaps a crippling mistake. Meyers took a chance, then, but he was the kind who watches closely enough to know when and with whom to take such a chance. In the individual identity of this Japanese American student, there was indeed some specifically Japanese American literary work to be done. If Meyers had not believed that his own Jewishness, his own group identity, was as finally irrelevant, however undeniable, as Whitman's homosexuality, he would have been blinded to his own individual identity, not to speak of Hongo's. Fortunately, it was not Meyers' way (it has become, unfortunately, too often the American way) to elevate the group above the individual.

Poetry proceeds by a heightening of the precision and clarity of ordinary perception. Meyers, to judge from what was said about him at the memorial service, brought some of this precision to his perception of people. Those who know he loved them know also that he knew them, or so it seemed as they spoke. Meyers' personality is remembered as hot and prickly rather than warm and fuzzy. Simon recalls him saying to her once, in a burst, "Be on guard!" But vigilance was evidently just another variety of attention in an exceptionally attentive man.

It is now common for teachers of writing, poetry included, to say with becoming modesty that they merely teach the craft, the part that can be taught. The craft counts, of course. Meyers, the college dropout, was a frame maker by trade, proud of the fineness of his work, and as careful about words as about wood. But nothing was clearer from Hongo's story than that Meyers also taught things that allegedly can't be taught.

One of Meyers' poems is "Apprentice":


I love you

I've learned to be

this hammer that runs

all day like a horse

with its hoof in its head.

In the afternoon

my hands

lie down together

for a minute.

Meyers taught his students to prepare for the obsessiveness that all artists must endure, "like a horse with its hoof in its head." He taught them how to recognize the exceptional, as Whitman was exceptional, and honor it. He showed them how, for love, to tell a stranger that you know his secret. This is what the very greatest literature does: It tells you a secret you didn't know you were keeping.

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