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Flying lessons

With wit and charm, English teacher George Schoenman taught generations of Fairfax High students to soar.

December 16, 2007|Barry Smolin | Barry Smolin teaches English at the Hamilton High School Humanities Magnet.

'Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man." A placard bearing those words, a quote from Francis Bacon, hung prominently on the wall above George Schoenman's desk at Fairfax High School. Schoenman taught there from 1959 to 1994, and multiple generations of slackers and scholars alike learned indelible lessons about writing and discourse and literature and life from him.

When Schoenman died of cancer several years ago, although there was a well-attended memorial for him in the school's auditorium, the world beyond Fairfax failed to take note. Unlike celebrities and politicians and others whose lives and deaths become global media events, teachers like Schoenman enrich the world in mostly unsung ways and then pass into oblivion. It's always like that with teachers.

I knew Schoenman for a long time, first as his student, then as his colleague and, ultimately, as his friend. While an arrogant sophomore in Mr. Schoenman's fourth-period honors 10th-grade English class during the 1975-76 school year, I was immediately captivated by his wry humor, his digressive lectures, his sweet charisma, his informal classroom management (we were allowed to eat in class, we could get up and go to the bathroom or the water fountain whenever we wanted, and he let us call him "George") and his willingness to have his own literary insights challenged.

"I'm no expert. I'm not any better at this than you guys; I've just been doing it longer. If you think I'm full of it, go ahead and tell me, tell me I'm wrong," he used to encourage us when explicating a passage from a novel or a poem. Of course, if you dared to do just that, he'd then proceed to cut you up like sushi and lay you out on a tray. Humiliating? Oh yeah, especially if the girl you liked was sitting next to you. But it was all part of the Schoenman charm.

His methods worked, and have continued to work, over and over again year after year. In college, in grad school, in life, to this day, whenever something has to be written, I, like multitudes of Schoenman alumni, hear his voice talking about "clarity" and "organization" and "development," about the offbeat power of the semicolon, the importance of a coherent thesis and transitional phrases, about the glory of meaningful discourse.

At Fairfax in those days, the received wisdom was that you took Mr. Schoenman to learn about writing and Mr. Battaglia to learn about literature. Even Schoenman would perpetuate the myth. "I can take you to the ceiling of your abilities," he would counsel us earnestly, "but Mr. Battaglia will lift the ceiling and show you infinity." Without doubt, Richard Battaglia was a phenomenal English teacher, but Schoenman's humility was a bit too self-deprecating because he was way more than just a writing teacher.

The truth is, he taught his students how to read literature exquisitely and maturely, and how to be sensitive to the subtle nuances of the written word. I learned from him not only how to write an essay but how to masticate the language and derive its essences, how to dig deep into the collective unconscious. Whether it was the poetry of ee cummings or A.E. Housman, or Camus' "The Stranger" or "A Separate Peace" by John Knowles, Schoenman modeled the art of close reading, explication de texte.

One particular session during 10th grade remains especially important to me. We were assigned to write a poem on an existential theme. I composed something called "Flying Solo," about a sad and very alone young man existing on the fringes of adolescent social life but making an attempt to soar despite the isolation. Mr. Schoenman singled out my poem as exemplary, handing out copies to the entire class and proceeding to analyze it with the seriousness he regularly applied to "real" literature. "He was destined to lead a life up in the air," Schoenman quoted from my poem, and then added, "This is very existential stuff, you see. It's all up in the air, we are all alone, doing what we can to defy gravity, in the midst of the absurd." The thrill of that validation has never left me. I still remember exactly where I was sitting and everything he said.

Oh, we had our differences, for sure. He loved Ernest Hemingway; I didn't. He thought "The Sun Also Rises" was thrilling and profound; I thought it was corny and boring. I joked around a lot in class, I slacked off, I was distracted by music and friends and females.

And yet, I was listening. I was getting more than I let on. I remember when I had the first inklings that I might someday want to become an English teacher. It was when I asked him why he had become a teacher. His initial answer was, "Because we're all going to die one day." But then he added: "Plus, it's better than having a real job. I mean, I get to sit here all day and talk about poetry. And they pay me to do it!"

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