We lost writers Pat Conroy and Umberto Eco the last two weeks. I am not prepared to discuss Eco because In The Name of the Rose was a life-changer for me, and I always hoped that Eco would simply live on forever as a reward for giving me, and so many others, such joy. I have liked Conroy’s fiction more than his nonfiction.Other writers seem to hate the nonfiction, but I particularly loved the My Losing Season and The Books of My Life. I think Conroy was so unabashedly sentimental about books in the latter that it bothered literary writers. He was supposed to connect with books intellectually; we all are, or we are doing it wrong. But that misses the emotional and aesthetic education books provide long before we get around to thinking about them more dispassionately. (It also assumes that the emotional and aesthetic do not overlap or inform the intellectual; or at least, the way I just framed it does.)
Anyway Conroy’s essay about his lifelong friendship with transformative teacher Gene Norris is one of my favorite essays. Norris taught black boys how to drive and celebrated their accomplishments loudly and ridiculously. He let the fatherless, like Conroy (who had father, but a brutal one), imprint on him and became the father they never had. This is so messy–and so generous–that I can’t even begin to write about it myself. Anybody, man or woman, who does this for a kid that isn’t ‘theirs’, is love in the world manifest.
I got caught up reading Conroy’s blog after his death. It is a sweet and sentimental blog, and it’s worth reading. This quote about teachers strikes me as particularly apt:
Teaching remains a heroic act to me and teachers live a necessary and all-important life. We are killing their spirit with unnecessary pressure and expectations that seem forced and destructive to me. Long ago I was one of them. I still regret I was forced to leave them. My entire body of work is because of men and women like them.