A Teacher's Reach
The end of each calendar year invariably leads us to reflect on not only where we’ve been over the last 12 months but, for those of us who are older, over the landscape of one’s personal history. As I review this year, which included turning 70 in May, I am deeply saddened by the fact that the last of my personal triumvirate of Yale Mentors, William McFeely, passed away last Wednesday. The New York Times, in memorializing Bill, noted he was “the author of acclaimed biographies of Ulysses S. Grant and Frederick Douglass . . . (and) helped establish Yale’s black studies department.” All of that is true, of course, as is the rest of Neil Genzlinger’s glowing Times obit, but, for as comprehensive as that essay is, it couldn’t capture everything Bill McFeely meant to me. I have often said (and written) that my four years at Yale was the formative experience in my life --- and that’s certainly true. But, within those four years, my Junior year (when I was 19-turning-20)was the most formative year of my time there. It was during that year that Vincent Scully became the Master of Morse College and a huge influence on my life. Also during that year I took Charlie Reich’s American Studies 36a – The Individual in America and developed a friendship with the soon-to-be famous (The Greening of America) law professor. But, most importantly, as an American Studies Major, it was during that year that I had to take the required Junior Year A.S. Major Seminar and, by an incredible stroke of good fortune, was assigned to Bill McFeely’s section.
It was an auspicious year on many levels. The first women to attend Yale as undergraduates were on campus and our former all-male bastion was suddenly co-educational. As noted in the NY Times, Yale had recently created an African-American Studies Department (now called Black Studies) and Bill, as a Reconstruction Era scholar (he had already published a book about O.O. Howard & the Freedman’s Bureau), was a critical contributor to that endeavor. When we met him in September 1969, he was just starting work on a biography of U.S. Grant --- a book that would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. Our seminar was 12 students, 10 men, 2 women, and Bill seemed unfazed by this new situation (Maybe because he had two daughters? Maybe because he had taught graduate seminars which included women?). The seminar was one of the most outstanding experiences I had at Yale. It was a two-hour oasis every Wednesday afternoon, amid a wonderfully swirling and chaotic campus (we were headed toward an April 1970, strike and MayDay weekend demonstration that saw upwards of 100,000 people descend on New Haven to demand a fair trial for Black Panther Bobby Seale). Bill was unflappable during it all and a wonderful teacher throughout. His influence on my teaching career is immeasurable.
Bill was a natural seminar leader who guided us through “classic” American literature and history (William Bradford’s Plymouth Plantation, Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, Justin Kaplan’s Mark Twain & Mr. Clemens, James Baldwin’s essays, and so on) with a steady stream of provocative questions --- always finding room for everyone’s opinion and insight. We even took a “field trip” to Mark Twain’s and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s homes in Hartford, Connecticut one week --- with Bill cluing us in on how Twain bankrolled U.S. Grant’s biography, when the retired President/General was down and out. We didn’t know until late in the Spring that we would be Bill’s last Seminar group at Yale. He was headed up to Mount Holyoke to become a member of their history department and Dean of the Faculty. My signature moment with Bill that year occurred early in our Second Semester when the American Studies Department held its annual “Honors” essay competition.
There were six or seven Junior Seminars in American Studies, as I recall. All the students in those Seminars were given the same assignment: read Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden and write a critical analysis about his thesis. Marx’s thesis posited:
"the aspirations once represented by the symbol of an ideal landscape have not, and probably cannot, be embodied" and that "our inherited symbols of order and beauty have been divested of meaning." However, Marx does not believe that these artists offer any solutions to the problems they raise. They have "clarified our situation" but have not created the "new symbols of possibility" we need. (wiki)
It was the Seminar Leader’s job to read his/her class’s essays and nominate one for “Departmental Honors.” At that time I was voraciously reading tons of “modern” American literature --- Kesey, Heller, Pynchon, Mailer, Vonnegut, Ellison, William Melvin Kelley, et al --- and I thought, rightly or wrongly, that Marx’s thesis was wrong. My essay took issue with Marx ending his study at Fitzgerald, essentially asserting that no “important” American literature had been written since the 1920s/30s . And that’s what I argued. Bill found my challenge to Marx compelling enough to nominate the essay as our Seminar’s representative for Departmental Honors. Needless to say, I felt great! By the beginning of second semester in 1970 I had gotten to know Bill McFeely well enough to not only value his friendship but, more importantly, to recognize the depth and breadth of his intellect. For Bill to select my essay was as good as winning the Departmental Honors --- which proved just as well, as it turned out. The Department Elders returned the essay to Professor McFeely and told him to select another from his group --- mine, to their reckoning, had not fulfilled the assignment. In a move that would endear Bill in my heart and mind forever, he essentially told the Department they were short-sighted and narrow-minded and refused to nominate another essay. He actually apologized to me for the Department’s “hypocrisy.”
That summer the McFeelys packed up and left New Haven for South Hadley, Massachusetts, and the next phase of Bill’s career. I moved to North Guilford in the Fall and made several “road trips” to South Hadley, visiting Bill and Mary and their kids (Drake, Eliza, Jennifer). We would talk about his new position as the faculty Dean at Holyoke and my pursuit of an Intensive Major degree (writing a huge Senior Essay --- worth 4 course credits --- about the modern American Literature I had cited in the Departmental Honors essay). He particularly loved his free-standing fireplace with its picture window behind it because it reminded him of Mark Twain’s double-flue fireplace in Hartford --- you could sit by the fire and watch the snow fall. Early one morning, as I sat in front of that fireplace, looking out the window, I watched a cat stalk a pheasant --- almost like a Wile E. Coyote cartoon --- charging and leaping as the pheasant took off, leaving the cat with a few small feathers in its paw, but no prey conquered. I remember Bill laughing heartily as I related the story to him later that morning.
As I began my teaching career at Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School in Westchester County I realized how much Bill’s teaching had impacted not only my decision to become a teacher but also my approach to teaching --- letting questions drive the inquiry. But Bill’s influence went even deeper than that. During my time at Blind Brook, as I became chair of the Social Studies/History Department, I was able, thanks to Principal Dave Schein, to hire my own staff. Two results of that hiring were directly connected to Bill and both hires proved to be outstanding teachers. One was Bill Mendelsohn, the younger brother of one of my McFeely Seminar classmates, Don, and the other was Bill’s daughter, Eliza, whom I had first met when she was a middle-schooler! In 1982, when Bill won the Pulitzer Prize for his Grant biography, Liza was on the staff and I was teaching an AP U.S. History class. It was only natural to invite Bill in to speak to our students and, typical of Bill, he was more than happy to oblige. How many times do you get to introduce your high school students to a Pulitzer Prize winning author for a “q.-and-a.?”
It’s December of 2019. The last of my Yale Mentors has passed away. The famous Henry Adams quote “A teacher affects eternity; he [or she] can never tell where his influence stops” applies to all three --- but particularly to Bill McFeely. The role-model of “lifelong learner” that Bill exemplified informed my life at every turn --- as a teacher, a coach, a writer, a musician, a reader, a thinker. Bill’s patience and thoughtfulness are not necessarily traits I’ve been able to emulate as well, but I am forever grateful to have had him share those with me, too. Indeed, he probably never really knew how much his influence affected me (though I think I tried to let him know) but I know I was the better for it --- and I know that’s true for not only his family but also the generations of students and readers he touched along the way.