Publication Date: 2010-12-30
Ohanian Comment:This is an excerpt from John Cheever's first published short story, "Expelled," published Oct. 1, 1930, in The New Republic. You can read the complete story here .
May every teacher realize that a future John Cheever may be sitting in her class.
Cheever sent the story to Malcolm Cowley at The New Republic when he was 18, his own formal education having ended abruptly when at age 17 he was expelled from Thayer Academy in Massachusetts.
In "John Cheever's 'Expelled': The Genesis of a Beginning," (American Literary History, Winter 1995, pp. 611-632) Giles Y. Gamble provides detailed, fascinating background for this story. Thayer Academy had been founded through money provided by, and according to stipulations set forth in, the will of Sylvanus Thayer, an 1805 graduate of West Point and later its superintendent. As superintendent he reorganized the Academy and to this day West Point operates according to the rigid Napoleonic principles he set down.
For grades seven through nine, Cheever had attended a progressive school that reflected the educational philosophy of Francis Parker and John Dewey. Educational approaches changed dramatically at Thayer Academy. In the fall of 1929 Cheever was at Thayer Academy on probation, in effect repeating the eleventh grade. In March 1930 he was formally dismissed. In his article, Giles Gamble shows in considerable detail how In a 1977 interview, Robert Baum casually labelled "Expelled" a satire. Cheever responded, "Satire? It was meant to be an attack." Cheever carefully fashioned his story about his dismissal to suit the politics and the causes of The New Republic.
Among other details you will find in Gamble's essay is the fact that Ezekiel Cheever emigrated from England in 1637 and became headmaster of the Boston Latin School, holding this post until his deat in 1708 at age 94. Cotton Mather was one of his pupils. Gamble notes that Cheever's "actual relationship to the schoolmaster was indirect he either did not know or preferred not to remember," and Ezekiel's colorful character appears in a number of Cheever's works.
. . . One time or another I suppose history was alive. That was before it died its horrible flydappled unquivering death.
Everyone seems to know that history is dead. No one is alarmed. The pupils and the teachers love dead history. They do not like it when it is alive. When Laura Driscoll dragged history into the classroom, squirming and smelling of something bitter, they fired Laura and strangled the history. It was too tumultuous. Too turbulent.
In history one's intellect is used for mechanical speculation on a probable century or background. One's memory is applied to a list of dead dates and names. When one begins to apply one's intellect to the mental scope of the period, to the emotional development of its inhabitants, one becomes dangerous, Laura Driscoll was terribly dangerous. That's why Laura was never a good history teacher.
She was not the first history teacher I had ever had. She is not the last I will have. But she is the only teacher I have ever had who could feel history with an emotional vibranceÃ¢€"or, if the person was too oblique, with a poetic understanding. She was five feet four inches tall, brown-haired, and bent-legged from horseback riding. All the boys thought Laura Driscoll was a swell teacher.
She was the only history teacher I have ever seen who was often ecstatical. She would stand by the boards and shout out her discoveries on the Egyptian cultures. She made the gargoylic churnings of Chartres in a heavy rain present an applicable meaning. She taught history as an interminable flood of events viewed through the distortion of our own immediacy. She taught history in the broad-handed rhythms of Hauptmann's drama, in the static melancholy of Egypt moving before its own shadow down the long sand, in the fluted symmetry of the Doric culture. She taught history as a hypothesis from which we could extract the evaluation of our own lives.
She was the only teacher who realized that, coming from the West, she had little business to be teaching these children of New England.
"I do not know what your reaction to the sea is," she would say. "For I have come from a land where there is no sea. My elements are the fields, the sun, the plastic cadence of the clouds and the cloudlessness. You have been brought up by the sea. You have been coached in the cadence of the breakers and the strength of the wind.
"My emotional viewpoints will differ from yours. Do not let me impose my perceptions upon you."
However, the college-board people didn't care about Chartres as long as you knew the date. They didn't care whether history was looked at from the mountains or the sea. Laura spent too much time on such trivia and all of her pupils didn't get into Harvard. In fact, very few of her pupils got into Harvard, and this didn't speak well for her.
While the other members of the faculty chattered over Hepplewhite legs and Duncan Phyfe embellishments, Laura was before five-handed Siva or the sexless compassion glorious in its faded polychrome. Laura didn't think much of America. Laura made this obvious and the faculty heard about it, The faculty all thought America was beautiful. They didn't like people to disagree.
However, the consummation did not occur until late in February. It was cold and clear and the snow was deep. Outside the windows there was the enormous roaring of broken ice. It was late in February that Laura Driscoll said Sacco and Vanzetti were undeserving of their treatment.
This got everyone all up in the air. Even the headmaster was disconcerted.
The faculty met.
The parents wrote letters.
Laura Driscoll was fired.
"Miss Driscoll," said the headmaster during her last chapel at the school, "has found it necessary to return to the West. In the few months that we have had with us, she has been a staunch friend of the academy, a woman whom we all admire and love and who, we aresure, loves and admires the academy and its elms as we do. We are all sorry Miss Driscoll is leaving us. . . ,"
Then Laura got up, called him a damned liar, swore down the length of the platform and walked out of the building.
No one ever saw Laura Driscoll again. By the way everyone talked, no one wanted to. That was all late in February. By March the school was quiet again. The new history teacher taught dates. Everyone carefully forgot about Laura Driscoll.
"She was a nice girl," said the headmaster, "but she really wasn't made for teaching history. . . . No, she really wasn't a born history teacher." . . .
Of course it was not the fault of the school. The headmaster and faculty were doing what they were supposed to do. It was just a preparatory school trying to please the colleges. A school that was doing everything the colleges asked it to do.
It was not the fault of the school at all. It was the fault of the systemÃ¢€"the noneducational system, the college-preparatory system. That was what made the school so useless.
As a college-preparatory school it was a fine school. In five years they could make raw material look like college material. They could clothe it and breed it and make it say the right things when the colleges asked it to talk. That was its duty.
They weren't prepared to educate anybody. They were members of a college-preparatory system. No one around there wanted to be educated. No sir.
They presented the subjects the colleges required. They had math, English, history, languages and music. They once had had an art department but it had been dropped. "We have enough to do," said the headmaster, "just to get all these people into college without trying to teach them art. Yes sir, we have quite enough to do as it is." . . . .