The Teacher, the Paradox, and the Trivia Savant
“I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers,” opens Thoreau in his Walden Pond.
However, heroic teachers should be the exception when they have a formative effect on students. Here in another commemorative blog, the contribution of one teacher finds recognition. For those tracking my own career shift, the initiative of Shelton Edits that is finding immense success discovers part of its inventiveness here. Even if you don’t know him, perhaps it will suggest that there was more than met the eye of your own teachers.
This formative professor in my academic career stands out as captain of a deeper learning experience. Since this one was Professor of English, let me set the stage by adapting Dickens:
He was the best of teachers, he was the hardest of teachers. It was a class of wise instruction, it was a class of painful grading. It was a semester of guidance, it was a semester of cognitive dissonance. He was intellectually hard, he was interpersonally soft. He was doctored, he was a hippy. He was a straight arrow, he was a paradox.
Dr. Richard Sherry. Raised in Washington State, he came to Asbury University in 1977, eight years before I arrived as a college rookie. Like many other freshmen in college, I came to campus having been the best at something in high school; for me, it was writing. As an advanced writing student at the modest Corbin High School, I landed and belonged in Dr. Sherry’s Advanced Composition class. That is where the advanced status came to screeching halt. Surrounded by other advanced students, I sank to the average rank. Most comparisons are relative. I wrote essays with pride and I had them returned in humility. His handwritten grading in various colored pens provided twice as many corrective words than the essay itself even held. My writing was torn down, deconstructed, razed. It didn’t rise from the ashes like a Phoenix for years to come. I recall once scheduling a meeting in his office—a corrective explanation to the improper grading that the prof was providing: “It’s like you’re not giving us any freedom to write,” I pleaded. He smiled a smile that seemed to say, “Your suffering is good. And I won’t change your grade.”
He was right (on both accounts). All my publications later—three books, thirteen articles and chapters, thirty book reviews—I see now that my expression was encumbered with the wrong prepositions, with a propensity to passive voice, and with enough participles to extinguish action verbs in a modern language. Twenty years later, when your boss says about your craft, “I wish I could write like that,” you realize that the lessons of youth have come full circle. But writing was not the only lessons this teacher provided.
Dr. Sherry took the class beyond language to pose greater life questions for which he himself withheld opinions. College is an age when delving minds sometimes want actual answers and not just enhanced questions; he would not provide them at the expense of good thinking. When our little college town had a convenience store open in the winter of 1986, the town seemed aghast that this establishment would violate blue laws by opening on Sunday. The store name, “Riley’s,” temporarily became a cuss word among the spiritual. He asked us, “Should you shop there?” “What will your response be?” “What is the Sabbath?” We didn’t know what to think, but we needed to think for ourselves.
At a college that did not allow dancing, he would bring his guitar to class and lead us in singing, “Lord of the Dance.” How are we supposed to reconcile that? So what if it’s in the bible (Mt. 11:17), can’t we just ignore it? Why am I looking over my shoulder when I sing this? Why is the class whisper-singing? At a college with a population holding a conviction against non-Christian music, he performed “Spirit in the Sky” at a talent show. Isn’t that a song secular, sung by drug addicts? How can you have heaven without the gospel in the song? Is that song even about Jesus? Yet, he taught us that God cannot be tamed. At a college in an age where facial hair was not allowed—an echo of a symbol of rebellion when Rich Sherry was a teenager—guess who lamented shaving to please other men? At the center of this challenging thinking, he required of us the reading of Arthur Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College, to foster the needed construction of our worldview.
While our minds reeled with harmonizing principles, and while our brains felt like an Advanced Comp paper recently graded, this savant of a professor hit a zenith one night at a class event. I will never forget the intellectual pride I brought to that game of Trivial Pursuit. After all, I graduated 18th in my southeastern Kentucky high school class. On his turn, Dr. Sherry rolled, answered the question, rolled, answered the question, rolled, answered for a pie piece, then another question, then another pie, then another. Like a run-on sentence that needed one of his colored pens, he filled his pie in one turn. Six pie pieces with an average of two questions to get there is eighteen straight questions. The Advanced Comp class was in advanced awe.
So it was, twenty-five years later, when I was all grown up and now an editor of a scholarly journal, I knew exactly who to call on when the journal wanted a writer to reflect on a career journey. Thirty-six years of contemplation on teaching was funneled into Dr. Sherry’s “Where We Lived, and What We Lived For” (Biblical Higher Education Journal 9 : 41-56), a title taken from Thoreau’s On Walden Pond, Trivial Pursuit enthusiasts will recognize. Dr. Sherry remarked: “I have moved to stand in different places along the way [of my career] and things look quite different from each vantage point.” In a world that changes—especially in the hearts and minds of young college students—Rich embodied the intellectual clash that leads to uncertainty and the wonder marking so much of life. He taught us to desert the black and white to discover the gray, to abolish the simple answer to allow for the complex one. It is a wonderful thing to hold tough issues in tension.
That welcoming paradox marks my own authorship of this blog, as readers will note how the suffering Advanced Composition student became a journal editor and today registered an LLC for an editing business. And just to show the good Doctor that he taught me not to be easily tamed, I started this sentence with a conjunction.
The Overcomer Class of 1989 and a generation of good writers salute you, Dr. Sherry. Thanks.