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The Optimist

February 19, 2012
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Back in the day, I played a mean game of golf, good enough to win tournaments and club championships and attract local attention. I worked at it, spending countless hours on the practice range, often under the tutelage of the club’s professional. I even worked at the golf course, in the pro shop, and on the golf course, with the maintenance crew. To a large extent, being a proficient golfer comprised my identity, for others as well as for me.

While I was in graduate school, I didn’t have the time or opportunity to play. For six years I didn’t touch a golf club. When I was finally able to take up the game again, I found that I had lost it. Flaws had crept into my swing and, despite incessant analysis, I was unable to recapture my former level of play. In a pattern that unspooled over many years, I’d think I’d discovered the problem, make the change, but found improvement elusive. I devoured books and magazines featuring golf instruction, took lessons, prowled golf websites to watch videos of professionals’ swings—all to no avail. I would have had better luck clicking my heels three times and wishing I were back in the Kansas of competent play.

The strange thing is that, despite my unsullied record of failure to diagnose and correct my swing, every time I stepped on to the first tee I felt I was on the cusp of rejuvenation. I’d think, “This is the day when it will all come together. Today, what was then will become what is now. This is the day my golf game will be reborn.” By the third hole, however, I had mentally checked out, consoling myself with the thought that at least I was getting some good exercise—or, in my more desperate moments, with the slogan I had once seen on the scorecard of a Baptist-owned course: “A closer walk with God,” although, in truth, it felt more like a loitering in Gethsemane. Actually, Mark Twain was more accurate: “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” Still, the next time I played, I stood on the first tee, fully Galahaded, fully expecting on this foray to find the miraculous grail of my glory days.

And strange to say, miracles, at least of the micro variety, do happen. Three springs ago, while on the practice range, I discovered the problem that had plagued and beleaguered me. What I had lost, I found. Instantaneously, I began striking the ball more solidly, dead solid perfect off the sweet spot, launching it straighter and farther and at a higher trajectory than I had in many years. And on that day, the day when my long-expected renaissance had finally arrived, I drove home, put my golf clubs in a basement corner, covered them with a small tarp, and quit playing.

I have aspirations for myself. I like the pragmatist notion that meaning is use, body and thought in action. I do not seek to be a bystander to my life, irrelevant to myself. I make plans for the future. They carpenter our lives into an ordered unfolding; they hold an arm outstretched, palm upward, to resist the havocking churn and plunge, the mad ricochet, of events. I expect skills once acquired, to stay acquired, over the course of time, at least until they decline, as they necessarily must, with age. Until then, I go on going on.

That day on the practice range, I reclaimed the ability I had lost. It was enough. And so, I left playing golf behind.

I am excited at the beginning of every semester. I am sure that the work I have done to prepare my classes has refined them to the point of can’t-fail success. Having read up on best practices and the latest pedagogical research into student learning; having created new in-class activities sequenced and scaffolded to impart the skills necessary for student success on papers and tests; feeling certain that this cohort of students will display curiosity, will write clearly and comprehensively in prose polished by editing and proofreading, will be willing to read not just with texts but against and beneath them, will gladly entertain ideas that broaden their horizons rather than genuflect before those that validate and reinforce their preconceptions, will be open to making canyon-wide intellectual leaps that even Evil Knievel would envy, I approach each new class with radiant expectation. “This is the semester it will all come together,” I think; “this is the semester when students will embrace intellectual culture and experience a renaissance of wonder.”

And three weeks in, that radiant expectation has not just been dimmed; it has been dealt an eyeball kick and forehead blow. 4-G attention-spanned, smartphone-armed, discipled by the new dispensation testaments of Twitter and Facebook, students will not go gentle into the educational experience I have prepared for them. I realize that the majority of my students might touch an idea, but will not fondle it; that they are good at accessing and disseminating information, but cannot quite massage it into knowledge; that they will resist introspection and refrain from the difficult work of analyzing for assumptions, forecasting implications, and engaging in evaluating and synthesizing ideas. I realize that this semester, like past semesters, will be as frustrating as trying to eat a taco with a fondue fork.

I can feel myself hunkering and find my eyes scanning the surroundings for sandbags to pile up around me. Yet, I think, “OK, I’ll need to rework the architecture of the course once the semester ends.”

Perhaps I’m ensnared in a Nietzschean eternal recurrence: “the hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again,” he says, and evidently me with it. But I don’t think I love my fate that much, to the point of seeing all my planning haywired and hackysacked. Perhaps I need to renounce my affiliation with Emerson’s “party of hope.” Perhaps I suffer from optimism bias, projecting rosy faith into the future where it solidifies into expectation. Perhaps I pursue a fool’s folly, victimized by self-delusion, an apologist for an unrealistic thithered elsewhere. But whatever it is, it is necessary. Absolutely necessary.

I have aspirations for these young persons, aspirations that may involve me, certainly my children and grandchildren. I want them to know how to coax meaning from information. I want them to be minds in thrumming motion, celebrants of kinetic thought, acolytes of continual learning. I want them to realize that the world is not for loitering in but acting upon; that it is made, not given, and, thus, can be remade. And so, I remake my courses. I simply must believe, must expect, that this time, this time, it will indeed and in fact all come together.

And when it does, when it does, I will leave teaching behind.

Jerry DeNuccio

Professor of English at Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa

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13 Responses to The Optimist

  1. vanessa seijo on February 19, 2012 at 8:31 pm

    (don’t I know how you feel)

    I’m a bit overwhelmed at the moment.For now, I’ll say, I wish all teachers were like you.

  2. Frank Scarangello on February 20, 2012 at 1:00 am

    Jerry – methinks you will be teaching until the end of days suffering under the delusion that all young minds care. Unfortunately, for many you are just 3 credits on the way to that degree, student loan payments and a job.

    Find the ones who care – and don’t carry the weight of guilt for the rest. Life is too short.

    And yes. You sound like any student would be lucky to have you for a teacher.

  3. Jerry DeNuccio on February 20, 2012 at 8:38 am

    Vanessa and Frank–Thank you for reading and commenting. I must say that there are just enough students who requite my care to keep me going, but I’m not giving up on the others. I’ll get ‘em, somehow, someway. But, there are days that do seem like “the end of days.” This past Friday in my Mass Media class I was working with a group on an analysis of data we had compiled on student bookreading done outside of class requirements. I noticed one young man surreptitiously texting, something absolutely verboten in my classes (I’ve been known to collect electronic devices in a carbboard box as students enter the class). When I asked him why, his reply was, “I don’t read outside of class, so I have nothing to contribute.” TGIwasF!

  4. Naomi de Plume on February 20, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    God bless the teachers’ optimism. It is why they are far more suited to guide our youth than the rest of us. I know that optimism was needed with me and, thankfully, my teachers always had it. Eventually I did right by them. Your students are lucky.
    I am, however, a bit preoccupied with trying to eat a taco with a fondue fork. I happen to have both and nothing to do for the rest of the afternoon…

  5. Jerry DeNuccio on February 20, 2012 at 6:58 pm

    Naomi–I have trouble eating a taco with my hands! I should adopt my father’s habit: he never ate anything that did not require a knife, fork, and spoon. But he loved corn on the cob. Solution? My mother cut the kernels off with a paring knife. Thank you for reading and commenting.

  6. AtHome Pilgrim on February 20, 2012 at 7:06 pm

    Mrs. P says that the teacher’s job is to keep the faith, to convey to students the belief–the conviction–that they can learn. That’s what keeps her going–that, and the ones who do. (One reward of teaching adults, as she does now: they tend to take it seriously.) (Except for the whiners.)

    That said, this is just a magnificent piece of writing, and I absolutely am serious. The sentences are so vibrant (“They carpenter our lives into an ordered unfolding; they hold an arm outstretched, palm upward, to resist the havocking churn and plunge, the mad ricochet, of events.”; and “will be willing to read not just with texts but against and beneath them”), the images so perfect (“I realize that the majority of my students might touch an idea, but will not fondle it”), the diction so spot on (“I want them to realize that the world is not for loitering in but acting upon”).

    Just stunningly good.

  7. Jerry DeNuccio on February 21, 2012 at 8:16 am

    Dale–there’s an old Billy Joel song called “Keeping the Faith,” and it’s always with me, a persistent background soundtrack, as I do my teacherly thing. Thank you for reading and for the kind comments on the writing. I am grateful for them.

  8. ChicagoGuy on February 25, 2012 at 11:46 pm


    2nd reading of this and it’s even better. Gotta give you the ultimate comment on this one–I wish I’d written this.

    Having played golf for a bit—it is not easy to make golf analogous to ANYTHING, but you did it.

    Having also been a teacher—you are spot on.

  9. Dr.Spudman44 on February 26, 2012 at 7:51 am

    We have had similar experiences. I too had a love affair with golf and learned to play it well. I carried a 3-handicap in 2000. I am looking forward to taking it up again seriously in April after I get my blind eye fixed(the reason I gave it up). I taught for 26 years and quit a few years from retirement-at the top of my game, I think which is how I wanted to go out. Optimism is never false. One concept that applies to both golf and teaching is the risk and reward concept. I moved on from teaching into a new world but I still have teacher dreams–Perhaps you know what they are. Like you dream you have slept in and nobody is covering your class kind of deal. Golf and teaching–two things one can never really master. Enjoyed your words.

  10. Jerry DeNuccio on February 26, 2012 at 7:59 am

    ChicagoGuy–Thanks for the 2nd read. If only I could get more of my students to read a 2nd time; heck, if I could only get more of them to slow down and read with care the first time! As for golf: I read once that to discover its true nature, simply spell the word backwards. It often did seem an exercise in self-flagellation!

  11. Jerry DeNuccio on February 26, 2012 at 8:10 am

    Dr. S.–Indeed, I know those dreams well: being unable to find the classroom, or finding it only to discover myself totally unprepared, totally blank, totally speechless. Some theorist or other speculated that teacher dreams sprung from an unconscious fear of being disclosed as a fraud, as a kind of con artist making only the signifying pretense of being an instructor, but really engaging in a kind of pedagogical three-card monte. A abjectly ugly theory, I think, for it does a huge disservice to those I have always found to be fully dedicated professionals.

    Thank you for reading and commenting. I appreciate it.

  12. Bill Schwartz on February 27, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    Fella, I sincerely hope that last line is nothing more than bluster. I can only say that it is teachers like yourself that stand like ladders between our children and the parapet walls. They cannot hope to scale them without you. And we cannot hope that they will succeed without you.

    Like any other profession, I’ve been reminded time and again that there are good teachers and there are bad teachers. It is imperative to us as a society dedicated to the furtherance of education that we hold on to the good ones as tightly as we can. If you illuminate nothing more than a single mind a year, it is a great victory.

    This was a great piece, Jerry, I truly enjoyed the way you tied in your golf experiences with your instructional ones. This one came as recommended reading from someone who had already read it; since my time is very tight right now, I made sure to get to it.

    I’m very glad I did. :-D

  13. Jerry DeNuccio on February 27, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    Bill–thank you for your kind words, and bless whoever recommended it. I appreciate your making time to read it. I understand tight time: My teaching schedule this semester includes 3 composition classes, a writing intensive Mass Media Intro. course, and, as an overload, the Senior Seminar, the main product of which is a chapter-length document. Now, if I could only invent a method of teaching writing where the students didn’t actually have to write anything!

    I’m grateful for your reading and commenting on the piece.

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