His name was Mr. Crothers, and we called him “The Crud”, or just “Crud”. We called him that to his face. It was a term of endearment, if you can believe it. We loved him. Class would be near its end, and someone would raise his hand. “Crud, will we be quizzed on this?” “Yes,” replied The Crud. We would say to each other, “Hey, did The Crud give homework in the class I missed?” The Crud’s lectures helped make us a group. We were 15 years old but we got into some really deep waters in that class. We had discussions that still reverberate for me. He was a rare rare teacher. I have written about him before. Amazingly, in that post I just linked to, Mr. Crothers himself shows up in the comments section. I hadn’t seen him or spoken to him in years. It’s wonderful when you can let someone know the impact that he had on you. Stuff like that makes life worth living. Acknowledgement!
I remember one of our classmates refusing to read The Catcher in the Rye because it was against her religion (because Salinger is mentioned repeatedly in the Bible). Mr. Crothers respected that decision, but he did make her write an essay about her views, and why she felt she shouldn’t read the book. And she had to take failing grades for those quizzes, but she got to make up for some of that by writing her essay. Seems a fair solution to me. Religious discrimination? Well, you’re in a public school. There is such a thing as separation of church and state. This book is on the curriculum. But it sparked a huge discussion in class, which he led like a conductor. I was (and still am) contemptuous of that kind of viewpoint, and while Mr. Crothers kept us all in line, he let us all speak our minds. AND, even more importantly, he made her defend her decision in words. No matter what, you should be able to express yourself. Thesis statement, Paragraph A support, Paragraph B support. It was an emotional class, I remember. But we were 15 years old: we could handle a discussion about censorship/religion/culture. I remember feeling sad, most of all, that she wouldn’t have the experience of reading that book. What a shame.
Some of the books we read in that class I hated and could barely get through. Some I fell in love with.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn almost instantly became one of my favorite books of all time. The Great Gatsby blew me away. Mr. Crothers was on fire during those Gatsby discussions. The book is not difficult reading (not like Moby Dick, another book we read in his class) – but the way Mr. Crothers talked about each chapter helped crack open the book for the class. I still remember his lecture on all of the names at the party: how evocative they were, how they told a whole story in and of themselves … details like that that I might have missed. I was a huge reader from the time I learned my alphabet. I had read “hard” books and I was always years beyond my level. But there’s nothing like a little help. I still like a little help. A person who can help me see something in a new way, or recognize something in the writing that might not be apparent at first view. For example, this line, which seals Gatsby’s fate:
“Oh, you want too much!” she cried to Gatsby. “I love you now — isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past.” She began to sob helplessly. “I did love him once — but I loved you too.”
Gatsby’s eyes opened and closed.
“You loved me too?” he repeated.
“Gatsby’s eyes opened and closed.” In that simple line, a man’s lifelong dream dies. For good. How elegant, how frightening. It is not usually a huge moment that breaks us. It is something small, imperceptible to the naked eye. I re-read the book a couple of years ago, for the first time in ages, and Mr. Crothers’ words all came flooding back, how he pointed out that section, and how he had us talk about it. And what Fitzgerald did there in the language, how simple it was, how he never says “Gatsby felt” or “Gatsby thought” – Fitzgerald just describes a physical response: his eyes opening and closing. Mr. Crothers helped me get how good that was.
He led the way, but he made us discover it ourselves. His lectures were impeccable. He knew what he wanted to discuss beforehand, obviously, based on the chapter we had read for homework, and he honed in on the moments, having us basically rap about them. He led us TO the revelations, so that we had a sense of discovery. I think that’s why so many of his observations have stuck with me. I still remember kids in that class, myself included, making little gasps of discovery when he would point something out (the names at the party, in particular: The entire scene looked different to us once we realized the bitchy sociological points Fitzgerald was making with all of those names.) The book became a puzzle, a mystery to be cracked. We felt like superstars of literature when we would figure something out.
And he wasn’t afraid of controversy, he would face it head on. We talked about racism in Huckleberry Finn, and we talked about why this book may be banned. We discussed the books in their larger contexts – the world from which they were written – which is now way out of style, and that’s a shame. To remove a book from its context castrates it. What do you talk about then? Text? Well, that’s a bit limited. He would make us argue our positions. He would not obviously take a side. He would read out a quote from this or that person stating WHY the book should be banned, and then ask, “What do you guys think?” We were not unanimous in our opinions. There were people who were uncomfortable reading the book, those who didn’t get the big deal, those who were angry that the book would ever be challenged. Crothers didn’t steer the conversation one way or the other, although he obviously was having us READ the book, so that tells you something right there. We would have debates in class that we would have to prepare for. Get up and state your position, then have someone do the rebuttal. He made us argue positions that we ourselves did not hold. “Okay, you argue FOR banning the book, and you argue AGAINST.” It was a brilliant critical-thinking exercise. Whether or not you agree is irrelevant in the context of true debating techniques: you should be able to argue either side, and be able to marshall your forces in either direction. He made us do that.
But he didn’t just discuss context. He also discussed Text. If you only discuss context, then each book has a tendency to become a pamphlet of the views/mores of the time, and that’s all you talk about: the misogyny/racism/social problems of the world of the book … which is fine, interesting and all, but can also cut off the greatness of a book (and also make the book seem incredibly boring to young teenage minds). Mr. Crothers talked about language itself. The ways in which writers used symbolism, metaphor, analogy. The narrative devices in any writer’s arsenal.
By the end of the year, we felt like old pros. We started the year baffled by Moby Dick (we had had to read it over the summer), and through The Crud’s careful and yet passionate lectures, we got to see what Melville was getting at. By the end of the year, he didn’t even have to prompt us. We were noticing everything that the writer was doing, and even though we may not have understood why, we at least recognized that there was something more to know. We did not dismiss something because it wasn’t immediately clear or perceptible. We knew that something MORE was going on, and we needed to understand why, whereas with Moby Dick, we all just groaned openly about how boring and pointless it all was. “WHO CARES ABOUT BLUBBER? GET BACK TO QUEEQUEG!”
An example of my own growth as a student in his class, in this regard, was when I got to the part in Catcher in the Rye about what happens to the ducks in the Central Park pond when it freezes over in the winter. If I recall correctly, Holden is chatting with a taxi driver about this issue. It goes on for some time. They speculate, they agonize, they wonder about the ducks frozen into the pond. I was in love with the book from the very first sentence, so I read it straight through, not waiting for the assignments of specific chapters. I do remember reading that “what happens to the ducks” section and feeling a strange prickle on my neck. It was the prickle of knowing that something was being expressed, something important, and I couldn’t figure it out. What does it mean?? I agonized to myself, and thought about it and thought about it, coming up with my own ideas. But I remember dying with impatience for Mr. Crothers to reach that section of the book in our class, because I NEEDED to hear what he had to say about it. We all walked into class that day, and I remember saying to The Crud as I passed by him, “Please talk about the frozen ducks – please! What IS THAT??” And he threw back his head and laughed and promised that he would. Mr. Crothers was younger than I am now at the time, but I imagine that seeing teenagers so excited and into works of literature must have been thrilling. He got off on it.
He was a tough teacher, too. I had always been ‘good at writing’, but in The Crud I met my match. I had written papers ever since junior high, but he is the one who taught me how to write. I got A’s on my college papers because Mr. Crothers had taught me how to formulate one. But it was not easy. On my first paper, I got a D. A D? In writing? I was devastated. I was used to struggling in math, but I always was the star of the class in English. A D? He had marked it up in red pen, with huge arrows, showing me where my thesis statement needed to be (not buried in the third paragraph, or not the final sentence of the thing), and how I needed to back this up, or that up, provide examples, whatever. I was so upset. Everyone got Cs and Ds on that first paper. We talked about it in class. I was sullen. Everyone was sullen. He broke it down for us. Here is how you do it. Here is how you guys need to think. It was scientific in its structure. My next paper? I worked my ASS off, and I got a C. I was not used to seeing anything even close to a “C” on anything I wrote, and it was a humbling and terrible experience. I still wasn’t getting it. I still wasn’t understanding the structure. This was early on in the class. It was one of the hardest classes I had ever taken, not because of what we were reading, that was easy, but because of the writing aspect of it, and that was a rude awakening. I knew I could write – but I was not getting the validation I was used to getting. It was horrifying. I kept working. I would read my papers out loud to my parents. I would sit and sweat it out. I got another C. And then another C. I got Cs on my papers for a month. I felt like my personality was breaking down. I was starting to get used to seeing Cs on my papers. I had become a C student in my mind. I ached for a B. Then I would at least recognize myself again! Mr. Crothers was brutal. He wasn’t just teaching us. He was training us. It was Theme Paper Boot Camp. I remember one night at home, working on a paper, knowing it was due the following day, and I completely short-circuited. I was unable to write a WORD on the page, I had become so self-conscious and so unsure of what I was doing. All I had for two hours of work was a bunch of crossed-out half-sentences. I knew, in my heart, that I would not be able to do it, I would not be able to get it done, and I threw myself on my parents’ bed sobbing, as my mother comforted me. It’s hilarious to think about. I was literally writhing about sobbing.
And when I got my first B on a paper I wrote for The Crud, it was a truly triumphant moment. It really meant something, that B. I had earned it, fair and square. It was the breakthrough. After that, I got my first A (which was meaningless compared to the first B), and then I just soared. No more problems. I knew what I was doing. It wasn’t the writing that was difficult for me, I had that down. It was the structure, and it was the thinking behind it. I could vomit out my “feelings” fine, but to gather my forces together and prove my thesis statement, with examples 1, 2, and 3 was not how I operated – I could not get my head around it. But once I figured it out, forget it. It would never leave me. I credit Mr. Crothers with my having taken a huge leap forward in my writing, something that I use to this day (and probably could use a refresher course from time to time), and something that I would go back to again and again in college, when I had big serious theme papers that were 40% of my final grade. It was especially helpful when the final for a college class was having to write a paper, with a time-limit: ie: In the 3-hour final, write a paper on the uses of symbolism in The Scarlet Letter. Oh, no problem. I knew how to do that. I had the tools. The writing had to be mine, but the structure was there for me to utilize, scientific, formulaic, and it helped me organize my thoughts and my time management. So I would go back to what Mr. Crothers taught me time and time again. Invaluable.
I never would have gotten it without that cold splash of water of getting a D first. A D, Crud?? Are you kidding me?
I have written before about my project, beginning in around 2001, of going back and re-reading every book I had had to read in high school, even Billy Budd, which I despised. That was the whole point: to revisit the books that my young mind had taken in, and see what I thought now. I had read a lot of books in high school, not only with Mr. Crothers as a teacher – I only had him in 10th grade. But it was only with the books from The Crud’s class where I remembered his lectures, where actual words he had said to us came up in my memory, where passages reminded me of something he had said or pointed out.
This is the impact a good teacher can have.
Mr. Crothers came up again this past week when I re-read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There were some books I struggled with in his class (Moby Dick being one – although once I re-read it as an adult it immediately became one of my favorite books of all time), some I didn’t care for, some that were a chore to complete. But there were others that were no less than exhilarating reading experiences: Gatsby, Tale of Two Cities, Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye … and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I remember crying when I first read it. I don’t believe I have re-read it since, although I’ve seen the movie a million times (and not to worry: I will get back to my Chronological Jack Nicholson project – I’ve been in the weeds lately with offline work, but I will get back to it.) I’ll do a bigger post on the book as a whole, once I stop percolating with it. But I wanted to point out yet another gem from a Crothers class that sprung to my mind as I read the book. Important to keep in mind that we had started the entire class with Moby Dick, which had been assigned for Summer Reading. I was in love with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest from the get-go, and had a big ol’ crush on McMurphy. Crothers made us hone in on this one passage:
He goes to getting ready for bed, pulling off his clothes. The shorts under his work pants are coal black satin covered with big white whales with red eyes. He grins when he sees I’m looking at the shorts. “From a coed at Oregon State, Chief, a Literary major.” He snaps the elastic with his thumb. “She gave them to me because she said I was a symbol.”
Way to show your cards, Kesey.
But with 15 year old readers, these things are not always obvious. Crothers pointed it out. He didn’t start off ponderously with, “What is he a symbol of?” which would have been boring, to me then, and to me now. He just asked us to think about it, and what it could mean. It took us a while to get it, and then after that it took us a while to really let it land.
“What could that Literary co-ed have meant?” he asked.
We in the class mumbled and stumbled. “I don’t know, Crud.” “He’s a symbol of what, Crud? I don’t get it.”
Crothers let us bluster about like that for a while, and then said, “What could she have been referring to?”
“No idea, Crud.” “Beats me, Crud.” “Why don’t you just tell us, Crud,” we replied.
“Is it the underwear that’s the symbol or is it something else?” he asked.
“Can underwear be a symbol, Crud?” “I don’t understand this book at all, Crud.” we said.
Finally, someone in the class said, “Is it because of the whales, Crud?” Mr. Crothers leapt on that: “‘Is it because of the whales?’ What do we think about that?” We knew we were onto something. “What could whales symbolize?” he asked us. We rapped about that. “They’re big …” “They’re scary …” We had taken field trips on whale-watching boats. We came from a fishing town. We knew about whales.
Mr. Crothers reminded us pointedly, “Remember, though: The Co-ed wasn’t a marine biology student. She was a Literature student.” The light then cracked in from above, and, the book being fresh in our minds, a couple of us shouted, “MOBY DICK!” Mr. Crothers almost jumped up and down in excitement. “Yes! Moby Dick! Okay, so what do we know about Moby Dick?” and then we were off to the races. Once that connection was made, we couldn’t stop seeing it. Moby Dick was everywhere in that book, and we all felt so smart once we figured it out. (Again, it is so obvious once you see it – but remember: we were 15. We were teenagers. We were obsessed with “Rock Lobster”, neon leg warmers, the Sadie Hawkins Dance and Adam Ant. Thinking in this way, an investigative patient way, was not in our makeup.) When it came time in Cuckoo’s Nest for the inmates to go on the fishing trip, all we could talk about was Captain Ahab. What Mr. Crothers had helped us do was see what Ken Kesey, the author, was doing. It was like cracking a code.
I haven’t thought of that discussion in decades. I didn’t even know it was still in my memory banks, but it came roaring to the surface, totally intact, when I re-read the book last week. Amazing.
I took English courses in college, but they paled in comparison to the vibrant argumentative ALIVE energy that was in Crothers’ class. I don’t remember anything said to me in English classes in college, but I remember the entire class devoted to Doctor T.J. Eckleberg’s eyes, and how it suddenly made the book come alive in a new way. And those lessons still reverberate. I don’t need Mr. Crothers to lead me by the hand, I now can figure stuff out for myself, although sometimes I still need help, but the help first given to me in 10th grade English has lasted a lifetime. I am a different kind of reader now, because The Crud taught me how.