Tag Archives: Joseph Epstein

By: James F. O’Neil

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten–Robert Fulghumall i needed to know

My mother once overwhelmed me by reciting the names of so many of her high school teachers.  Her telling was many years ago–and many years after she left Lindblom High School in Chicago.  I once tried to replicate her memory of my teachers.  Once.

Throughout my teaching career, I was (and still am) a firm believer that “teachers teach as they were taught,” choosing eclectically the best practices and avoiding the worst of the worst.  I always wanted to become aware of those who were memorable, or non-memorable, teaching influences in my life. 

I, for example, though not starring in many school plays, hated to memorize lines.  I hated any type of public recitation, from a “Bah!  Humbug!” in 7th grade to “Friends, Romans, countrymen” in 10th grade.  Yet despite my aversion to memorization, there was no way out.  I had to do it: multiplication tables, geometry theorems, aorist tenses in Greek, and even argumentation principles.

Memorization is an action of memory, hence the root of the word.  “If memory serves me correctly,” usually it does.  And for some, memory serves better than for others.  What matters about baseball statistics or capitals of states or GNP of countries?  Caring.  Who cares?  Yes, that’s the point.

The Pythagorean theorem–a² + b² = c²–meant nothing to me.

Who cares?  I didn’t–until a teacher (a nun, a Religious Sister of Mercy, RSM) explained that throwing a ball from third base to first over the pitcher’s mound was NOT 90 feet, but 127.27922 feet.  She and Pythagoras made that very clear.

I cared now.  I needed a strong arm to play third base.

Caring determines memorization acumen.  If I care so much about subject X, for whatever reason–to get a good grade, to show off, to complete myself, to prove something to myself or to others–then memory will serve me well.  (Though for certain school subjects, “Use it or lose it” does come into play.  I rarely use “side-angle-side,” the quadratic equation, or R-O-Y-G-B-I-V–except when I see a rainbow.)

So what good to remember names of teachers unless one cares?  How often am I actually called upon to write an essay on “The Most Influential Person in My Life”?  Teachers might come to mind were I writing a college admission essay.  Or “the fastest airplane ever” if I were an airplane enthusiast.  Or anything with lists or numbers or beliefs or…ad infinitum (Ah, that’s one to remember: “to infinity” but then I might add “and beyond” for an update to include time and space: ad astra per aspera, an axiom or motto adopted by some pilots in World War Two.) 

And the list goes on. . . .

But those special teachers: I cannot forget.  Ever.  Like my mother, no matter how old I am, I remember.  Or try to remember.  But is the past worth returning to?  Do I need to be able to remember or list teachers?  

Joseph Epstein

Joseph Epstein

“Memory,” Joseph Epstein writes, “with the ability it bestows to allow a person to live vividly away from the body and immediate environment, is a possible sign of the ability to live after the body has disappeared.”

Receiving notification of the death of a former teacher, I page through my high school yearbook.  The spirits live, as Epstein believes.  I was looking to find a picture of one of my “ghost” teachers, to find a picture that might enliven a memory.  There he was.  His death notice showed him to be thirteen years older than I, both then and now.  However, he looked so young in the picture; he was never “old.”  (My graduation picture shows me at age 18.)

Opening the pages–still mostly intact after fifty years!–I find pleasure.  Calm overtakes me: I see my teachers; I look into the eyes of my classmates.  There is something that even thrills me.  My youth?  All our youth?  (Except for those “old” teachers.)

Yes, those memory-filled pages (as trite as it sounds) bring smiles to my face, stories into my mind.  And those teachers, those favorites, live on: history, science, Latin, math, music, religion, even Greek and some German.

Yet I could not, however, list them all from memory.  When I open the book, however, I visualize and want to tell the stories.  I want to recount who did what, what “battles” were fought, who still survives.

A yearbook isn’t simply a book about “years”; it is about life.  It has a spiritual life of its own–even though a body has disappeared.  Timeless.  Though I might age, I am forever young within its pages.  These pages contain so much memory of a part of my life–even, perhaps, an incalculable part.

And, really, I was a handsome guy….

©  James F. O’Neil  2014

 Pic of 1936 Yearbook from Lindblom High School (Credit: eBay)





By: James F.O’Neil

I have become an Epstein-ite.  Joseph Epstein was former editor of The American Scholar and teacher of writing at Northwestern University.  Born and educated in Chicago, as I was, he came into my life through some of his familiar essays. 

Joseph Epstein

Joseph Epstein

These writings have helped shape me and my reading “habits” (definitely an “addiction” word).  Bored with some of the “masters,” I have learned to decide for myself what I want to do with the printed word.  I will not stop reading, that is for sure–“better read than dead.”

Espousing what Epstein means in writing that books “have become much more like family,” I have in my bookcases pictures of family on the shelves; intermixed with books, I have special photo albums and journals of travels and picture books–even special “family mementos.”  A mix, of poetry, philosophy, psychology, history; film books, Books of the Western Canon, a Bible here and there, pop “culture,” and art books; some law, an education treatise or two, architecture and humanities; and even a few books each about chocolate, Absolut vodka, and fairy tales.  This is my family–and, in my life, “family is everything.”

In his essay “Bookless in Gaza” (a takeoff on Eyeless in Gaza, a bestselling novel by Aldous Huxley, published in 1936), Joseph Epstein writes of his early reading experiences, which were not “friendly.”  John Milton wrote about the Biblical Samson, captured and later blinded by the Philistines–“eyeless”–then forced into labor in Gaza.          

Epstein relates how his “forced labor” reading [emphasis mine], like doing book reports–actually faking them–gradually became a labor of love, actually an “addiction.”  (No doubt, Epstein was able to outgrow and break away from the “ignorant and uncultured” philistine teachers of his childhood.)    

He confesses that he holds “a philistine assumption”: that everyone dies someday (not an intellectual matter at all).  With this belief, he writes (as he has written elsewhere) that he wants to be “as well read as possible”–“better read than dead.”           

“And now a philistine confession to go with a philistine assumption: I read in the hope of discovering the truth, or at least some truths.  I look for truth in what some might deem strange places: novels and poems, histories and memoirs, biographies and autobiographies, letters and diaries.”          

“. . .  I seek clues that might explain life’s oddities, that might light up the dark corners of existence a little, that might correct foolish ideas that I have come to hold too dearly, that might, finally, make my own stay here on earth more interesting, if not necessarily more pleasant.”

I, too, desire great things in life–especially to live long and prosper.  Reading, in my estimate, as an Epsteinite, will continue to reinforce this desire.

© James F. O’Neil  2013

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