So I’m thinking about changing the name of this blog to “Barry Smolin and other stuff.” Why? Because the blog will go viral due to the million and one former students who love him. “I had him in 9th and 12th grade. He is awesome,” tweeted one guy now in his mid-twenties after reading my last post. “Barry is an amazing professor and most responsible for my decision to major in Literature in college. He is truly inspirational and I was so lucky to have him as a teacher,” another guy raves after seeing it on facebook. All of a sudden, this blog has readers in Malaysia, India, El Salvador, Saudi Arabia and Thailand, among others.
I am going to write about Barry Smolin every single day.
Okay, I’m not. I don’t care how much you love him, I am not going to be a slave to popularity, so go out and enjoy Thailand, for God’s sake! Get some sun!
But if one of my central questions here is “what is a great teacher?” I’m going to propose that one answer might be “someone who continues to inspire you long after you’ve left high school, so that years or even decades later, the mention of him will cause you to go totally crazy and start forwarding facebook posts about him to everyone you’ve ever met because he changed your life and you want everyone in the world to know it as you travel all over the world.”
I mean, I like that better than “he caused my test scores in 11th grade English to demonstrate a year and a half of growth.” Right?
So how does Barry do it? Or is he right, is teaching magic, something that can’t be reduced to a set of techniques that I can learn?
Well, maybe. But I can tell you that on the day when I observe Barry teaching, I learn quite a bit, some of which I’m definitely going to try myself the next time I’m in the classroom.
First of all, Barry is unique. Nearly every inch of his walls is covered with posters, a mishmash of his interests: Shakespeare and the Beatles, “The Scream,” musicals, a poster of Kafka with the quote “The Meaning of Life is that it Stops.” A tie-dyed tablecloth covers his desk. A menagerie of plastic figurines sits out on a file cabinet, gifts from students in years’ past. Students lounge on two small couches at the side of the room, some of them chatting and eating yogurt, one of them napping. “I don’t do that thing where you have an objective on the board,” he says with a shrug, letting the kids settle into class while he gets a cup of coffee.
The mood stays casual and warm even once class starts. In a zigzag sweater and jeans, Barry swings out a rolling chair he sits in only for a moment before jumping to his feet to talk about the book they’re reading, Madame Bovary. Though the class is in fact a very close literary analysis of a few pages of the text, the discussion is free-wheeling and always links back to real life.
He reads aloud, extremely dramatically, acting out every syllable, dropping to his knees as the lecherous Rodolphe woos Madame Bovary, whispering, pretending to race out of the room, pretending to feel faint.
Every few words, he lowers the book, astonished by what he’s just read. “Look at the language here! ‘This was the first time Emma had ever heard something like that…’ Do you guys know that feeling? What is that feeling?”
The kids chime in, talking about flattery, Barry digresses freely about Rodolphe, claiming that Rodolphe is behaving “just like one of those male models, he’s like that Fabio guys with the torn shirt and the ripped abs”—here there are murmurs of agreement from the kids and laughter—“I swear, when I become a male model, and I do believe that the balding middle-aged look is trending, I believe that Flabio will be a good name.” And then he goes right back to the text, stopping again in the middle of the next sentence to look up. “You see what’s going on here? What an asshole!” he exclaims, genuinely outraged by Rodolphe’s smarminess.
The kids chime in frequently and enthusiastically. Almost every line is analyzed. “What does ‘she gave herself to him’ mean?” he asks, after Madame Bovary and Rodolphe lie down in the woods.
“They fucked,” says a girl with pink hair and a pierced lip.
Barry is unfazed. “Essentially. To put it bluntly.”
“Why does she cry afterwards?” asks another girl in the front. “I just find that weird.”
“It’s complex,” says Barry. “It’s a complex emotion.” Throughout, he freely ties the characters’ feelings to his own experiences and encourages the class to do the same. When Madame Bovary later looks at herself in the mirror and says to herself, I have a lover, Barry recounts a story of when had his first girlfriend at fourteen and stood in front of a mirror saying to himself I have a girlfriend, I have a girlfriend because giving words to something abstract makes it concrete.
The class flies by. In some ways, I see what Barry means when he says teaching is magic. His absolute love for every single word of the book and for reading itself cannot be faked. And he is hilarious, something most of us can’t muster on a regular basis. But still, what I learn from watching him teach is that bringing your own life, your own personality, your own experience and your own passion to the work really is inspirational to your students. It’s inspirational for the obvious reason that passion is infectious, but also because, by bringing his own authentic self to every word and encouraging his students to do the same, he actually models true literary analysis, the process by which we make meaning of words. It’s like a stepping-out, an enactment, of the inner process of reading at its most engaging.
And even though in teaching this way, he breaks about a million rules, if his students learn to love reading and then carry that love with them for the rest of their lives, even if he does bring his own magic to it, isn’t that something we all should try?