By David O’Shell
David O’Shell is a middle school teacher in Maryland.
I have always wanted my students to be able to solve real problems in the world by relying on the abstract knowledge they have learned from me. I think this is central to what it means to be an educated person. It always has been. And I think no other writer has developed this notion of combining the ideal with the mundane in order to produce a complete individual more than Herman Melville. And this week, with Melville’s 195th birthday on Friday, I’m reminded that when I look out on my classroom, I see Melville and his world.
I see this in White Jacket, kind of an overture to Moby Dick, where Melville reveals this completed person to us in his lovely description of the Man of the Mast, as innocence and experience united: “You would almost think this old mastman had been blown out of Vesuvius, to look alone at his scarred, blackened forehead, chin, and cheeks. But gaze down into his eye, and though all the snows of Time have drifted higher and higher upon his brow, yet deep down in that eye you behold an infantile, sinless look, the same that answered the glance of this old man’s mother when first she cried for the babe to be laid by her side. That look is the fadeless, ever infantile immortality within” (649). Melville’s complete (or mostly complete) individual, Ishmael, Ahab, Bartleby, Israel Potter, will always have scars or wrinkles, a sunburn of the soul. But he will have these marks of experience in combination with a small candle within, by the light of which he can read these experiences.
Being a teacher will mean that you meet some rough salts. I’ve taught kids without a home, who have attempted suicide, who are cruel or out of control. Other teachers have had much worse. How do you teach people like this? This is where teachers who work with tough kids scoff at tough standards.
Melville’s answer is to work with these people, as in work alongside them. This is Melville’s contribution of ideas to literature I find useful. His ideas are different from someone like Tolstoy, whose characters find enlightenment through a kind of volunteerism and cutting grass. Melville in democratic America had the opportunity to mix more evenly with people at the bottom. He comes through these experiences without sentimentalizing. Some of them are good fellows; some aren’t. It is in these situations, surrounded by the core of humanity in a microcosm, where we find ourselves and how we relate to the rest of the world. This is what Melville’s books are made of.
Melville is unique in this way among writers in that he is both at the bottom and at the top. His aristocratic family lost everything, he worked on merchant, whaling, and navy ships, became a famous author, married wealth, and ran out of money and fame once again. As a teacher I have to find myself in the same place, as being both on the bottom with those I am working with and at the same time being of a tradition of high culture.
That’s why I am glad I had so many terrible jobs before I became a teacher. Working at Pittsburgh’s Original Hot Dog Shop and in roofing gave me the experience of being in the trenches with the kinds of people I help as a teacher. Having to defend myself rhetorically against three other roofers 90 feet in the air on a 15 degree pitch on why I believed “humans came from monkeys” well prepared me to face a group of 30 struggling students alone in a cramped classroom. Some of these experiences were good and some were bad, but I was able to take the most educative of them and read them by my inner candle.
Melville’s educated individual is one who has merged experience with what is native, innocent. Queequeg from Moby Dick thus typifies the Melvillian student: “Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last” (691). For Melville, man at his best is a book to be read, reread, and puzzled over: “Seat yourself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, grandeur, and a woe. But from the same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates, both contemporary and hereditary” (670). Here you see the problem that the mass of mankind presents to us. From our experience with the mass, we can come back to our fire within and come to a better understanding of our own book. And as teachers we can see each student as an unread book.
I am one of those teachers to whom principals assign the difficult kids. It has been a surprise to me that over the years I have shown skill in working with the tough ones. I was never particularly popular in school. I certainly do not have charisma like Mr. Keating. I’m the kind of person you grow to like after a few months. Years. But I can be real with you when it is necessary. Any person who is interested in becoming a teacher should first go for being real. Melville and a sunburn are a good place to start.
Follow Dave O’Shell on Twitter @DavidJOShell.
Quotations from Moby Dick are from the 1992 Modern Library Edition. All other quotations are from the 3 vol. Library of America Melville collection.