Friday, May 8, 2015

Perry Hedison

"Everything you know is wrong."

Most people I know had, somewhere between Kindergarten and the defense of their dissertation, at least one teacher who, in common parlance, "made a difference".  The fortunate ones, such as myself, had more than one, although the total is still not more than a handful.  For me, it was Mrs. Haven in the 5th Grade, Mr. Smith in the 11th, Mrs. Dixon at Sunday School, and two of my college professors, one of whom was Perry Hedison.  The effectiveness of these educators had less to do with their subject matter than it did with their ability to make one want to excel in whatever was the field of endeavor.  

Hedison would have satisfied a cliche in popular fiction: The gruff educator whom students are terrified to have as a teacher/professor who turns out to greatly enable their fledgling progress.  The novel, and later movie, The Paper Chase often comes to mind, especially as I read/saw it the year I became a college student and discovered, much to my surprise and horror, that the model for the cruel, demanding, and precise Professor Kingsfield was standing before me on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings.

Actually, when I first saw him, I thought it was Ernest Hemingway.

It was the first class on the first day of my first year of college at 9 a.m.  I had almost not found the classroom in time and, because of near tardiness, had to sit dead center in the front row.  The class was Introduction to Literature: Philosophy and Writing and, unlike intro courses at large state universities that take place in auditoriums and are usually taught by assistants, this room, in the oldest building on campus, held only twenty-five students and was taught by the professor and only the professor.

Perry Hedison was in his early sixties, stocky and bearded, and had been a fixture of both the English and the Philosophy departments of the college since before I was born.  He wore the same tweed jacket to class every day, whether it was 10 degrees or 90.  He looked that morning as if he either had a raging hangover, was modeling for a rather severe version of Mount Rushmore, or simply could not believe that he was, once again, teaching a collection of fresh-out-of-high-school kids things that they could not or would not accept as they were in direct conflict with everything programmed into them by their parents and bad teachers.

All I remember is that, because of my prominent perch right in front of him, Hedison fixed me with a stare, leaned forward from his desk, and said those immortal words captured in the quotation above that became, through my own career as an educator, priest, and theologian, the first words I speak to myself when beginning with a new subject, class, or parish.  As I learned that day, almost everything I thought I did know was, in fact, either wrong or, if not quite wrong, dangerously incomplete.

I took five classes from him during my three-and-one-half years of college.  With him I studied the complete works of Shakespeare, a survey of the philosophic schools of the 19th and 20th centuries, and use of English in the fiction and non-fiction of Winston Churchill.  He required us to read the assignments in a timely manner and be familiar with the material.  As we were subjected to increasingly intense questioning during the fifty minutes of class, those who did not keep pace were subjected to an embarrassment that could occasionally be aided by Hedison's considerable talent for sarcasm.

Although one day, when I had been particularly brilliant [if I do say so myself], I waited for him to once again poke massive holes in my pet theory about one of Shakespeare's sonnets.  Instead, Hedison simply grunted, nodded, and said, "Read the next speech, Clements.  It's from 'Much Ado'. You seem ready finally."  That may be the finest compliment that I've ever received.

He never socialized with students and rarely made reference to his personal life.  There was a photo of two women on the desk in his office that I took to be his wife and adult daughter; about a dozen copies of one of his books on Churchill's use of theater, and nothing else.  I never saw him arrive on campus and never saw him leave.  As one of the sociology professors had taken to surreptitiously living in a classroom and washing himself in the pottery room [he was fired at the end of term], we would joke that Hedison, too, had his own secret chamber somewhere in the liberal arts building, although something on a grander scale than the odd sociologist.

Later I began to wonder if we weren't prescient, as he showed up in the cafeteria very early one Saturday morning; a place in which he had never been seen.  As I had reserve officer's training on weekends, I was one of the very few students who would be there early, too, and rather conspicuous in my green utility uniform.  Seeing that I was the only person whom he recognized he sat with me, mentioned that the only sunrise he cared for was one that came with tequila, finished some bacon and eggs, and left.  No one saw him come in; no one saw him leave.

The last time I saw him was graduation day, when he led us to the ceremony in his role as faculty warden, carrying with him the mace of office.  I didn't return to campus for over 25 years, and then just by chance as I was driving across the country and knew of a nearby hotel.  He was long gone by then, of course, and forgotten, as were the days when the great writers and philosophers, who are now dismissed as "dead, white males", would be taught by other white males.  What replaced that rigorous training was a melange of politically correct porridge that has resulted in the current crop of the higher educated; those who know little outside of a protected bubble and have never had to stand and deliver in a way that respected ability, industry, and a passion for knowing the subject.

I often find myself these days listening to people who have received degrees in the "practical" fields, those of engineering, business, accounting or the like; even clergy, who should know better, who will crow about their former academic work and despair of those of us who "wasted" our time in subjects like philosophy, literature, or art history.  Judging from their output, and the sorry state of the contemporary church, I'm unclear as to the source of their boasting.  I recall mentioning in the company of ordained colleagues how much I appreciated studying literature as so much of our professional life involves writing everything from fund-raising letters to sermons and homilies to, well, obtuse blog posts.

"Well, I majored in Accounting and I can write, too", replied a mildly hostile fellow cleric, somewhat defensively.

"Yes", I replied, "You write like an accountant."  Hmm, perhaps I learned sarcasm from Hedison, too.

As for me, I owe much to Hedison, not just for the compliment once received but because, more than anyone else, he taught me how to think in a way that was unclouded by sentiment or indolence. Whether I have served as a reporter, a infantryman, a teacher, a business owner, or a parish priest, those lessons have fed my existence.  I know I would never have been as effective a preacher if I did not try to look at each scripture passage anew, in the same way he had us look at Shakespeare or Kierkegaard, and see things that I have never seen before; to surrender worn perspective and find new images and new life to inform my faith.

One day, during my service as the assistant headmaster of a boarding school, I overheard the following exchange from some students in the hallway outside of my office.

"Who'd you get for philosophy?"
"Clements.  I hear he's hard."
"He is."
"And scary."
"Yeah, but you'll learn something from him."

Thanks, Perry.  Somewhere along the line, every good teacher wishes to be recognized as effective, even if effectiveness means that you're regarded as difficult and scary.  As those who have taught understand, those tools serve as a greater stimulus for learning than any other.  The result is students who are able to take even a remote niche of study and apply it broadly across their life's experience for their improvement and, one hopes, for the general improvement of their world.