Monday, May 18, 2009

Barry M Clock Remembers William Stafford

Barry Clock recently sent us this delightfully self-deprecating and affectionate account of his experiences with William Stafford as a teacher:



I was a junior at L&C and had put off taking my English requirements for another year. I had my fill of Shakespeare and all those fellows back in high school and was dreading a follow-up course in college. In fact, I could see no good reason why it was even a requirement (and don't forget, I knew practically everything about everything ...I can't emphasize that enough). So I asked one of my friends at LC the all-important question about this prof named Stafford, "Is he easy?" He replied, "Well, ya, I didn't read more than 20 pages in that class and he passed me!" I'm thinking, just what the doctor ordered for spring time on Palatine Hill ..."English Lit for Dummies". I had just completed a course nicknamed "Rocks for Jocks" (Geology) the previous term, which ended up being difficult and one of the best classes I had ever taken in college. I was determined that wouldn't happen again.

So after all my hard work in "Rocks" and football and wrestling, I was due for a break with this Stafford guy, whom I had never even heard of before. So I walked into class in the basement of one of the Forest dorms on the first day. Perhaps 12 students and a teacher were sitting in a circle in a student desk (ya, I was late). Oh, oh, this doesn't look good,” I thought as I quickly looked around, "I'm going to have to say something in this class this term, with only a dozen other students and maybe even say what I think and why. And what's with that prof sitting there, like he actually cares? Plus he's looking like he is expecting to learn something from US as well?" This could be trouble. Oh well, at least he's easy.

William Stafford's soft-spoken words, thoughtful statements, unassuming attitude and easy-going ways swallowed me up from the first moment that class started. This "easy" guy had me hooked from the moment I cracked Shakespeare open that day and the discussion began, a timeless discussion that never ends, about good and evil and human nature. I loved it all, I had always read everything I could lay my hands on before this, but not LIKE THIS. I thought, "Hey, this guy's not too bad, he might make something of himself yet." A few weeks later, while eating dinner at Saga, I said just that (can you imagine anyone as stupid as I was?) and one of my friends looked at me and said, "Don't you know, ol' Stafford has a stack of awards that would make all of our sports awards look like nothin'?"

You know, in some ways I wish I had never heard that, because my respect for him jumped a mile higher. And it shouldn't have, because he was what he was, awards or not. But that too is human nature. I have two fond memories of Stafford (excuse my use of his name, to me that is a sign of familiarity and highest regard). One was the day when he had me read what I had written in front of the class followed by a discussion of it. He had ME read something to HIM that a joke or what? So, of course I couldn't wait to take a Western Lit class from him the next year. I remember willingly reading all of Dante's "Inferno", when I should have been playing cards and talking with my teammates, on the team bus crossing Eastern Oregon and Idaho in a snow storm ...thinking, "How did ol' Stafford know I'd be out here in this frozen waste land reading about a hell that is frozen?"

In closing, I went on to teach high school at Newport for nearly 30 years. Many of my methods were borrowed from William Stafford. I recall a poster was hung in the NHS library, one year, with his picture on it, about him being the National Poet Laureate or something. I told everyone who would listen, "That was my professor! Can you believe it?" They didn't understand.

Every year when fall rolls around again, invariably I think of his poem, "That Autumn Instant", the finest thing ever written about a season of a year, a season in life. And my last thought, after rereading it is, "What if I hadn't taken the 'easy' professor and I had taken a 'hard' professor instead?"

So I learned, sometimes in life, the "easy" way out is the best as well as the hardest.

Barry M Clock

L&C, class of '70


You stand on a hill in July

and wave: you feel summer stream over

the land, part of a river too wide

to cross, ever—still and mild.

You feel that river turn on its back

and stare at the sky.

You turn to dive again for your life

where it leads you, by breath and

anything next. The daylight endures;

it won’t pass; it follows the sun

around. But wherever you turn,

there on the grass and weeds

winter has brushed its hand.

William Stafford, from Smoke’s Way, Graywolf Press, 1983.

In response to a prompt from Kim Stafford, Barry sent these further thoughts:



This little essay began with an email when I said, "Kim, I could go on and on about your father's teaching methods, should you care to hear someday, (filtered through 30+ years)." You took me up on my offer to share some of my observations on your father and my professor at L&C, William Stafford.

In my mind, teaching was Stafford's greatest legacy, not poetry (but he wasn't too shabby at that either, ha). As far as I know he never got an award for teaching. In spite of what you hear sometimes in the media, teaching success is so difficult to measure. I taught high school for 30 years and I noticed that most awards connected with it are rather meaningless and often based on PR and garbage. It seems to me that the only teaching award that matters is the look in your student's eyes ...and in your eyes while you are teaching. It's kind of silly that it comes down to that, something so nebulous, in our "scientific, statistical" world. But it's the truest thing. If I were a principal, that's what I'd really be looking for when I was filling in the paperwork for a teacher's evaluation.

That was the thing, it was all in your father's eyes. That look at the start of class, a hint of a smile, a mischievous glance around the room, a thoughtful stare at the ceiling ...all gave me the feeling, "Do you want to do some thinking today? You guys want to kick around some words and ideas? Want to read some stuff and talk about it?" In short, Stafford's look was, "Hey, do you guys want to come out and play?"

That was one thing I took with me when I set off into the world of teaching. Education and teaching and learning are serious stuff, but NEVER take yourself too seriously. And there are two ways to go about it, the teacher's way or the student's way. The "student's way" is the best. A teacher is a student as well. I knew all that from watching Stafford in class, but of course I had to relearn it the hard way in front of high school students myself.

I don't want to sound sappy, but the feeling that Stafford gave us—that he really and truly cared about all things connected with us—amazed me. In fact it still does. I think I was able to communicate that to my students throughout the years also. My way was through a liberal dose of humor with all my students. His was a deeper thing, impossible to explain and convey.

Kim, if I have come across as disrespectful towards your father, by calling him by his last name in class and in this essay ...that is the opposite of my feelings for him and my intentions. I considered it a compliment of the highest order when all my students in class, and through out the years since, just called me "Clock". That was all I wanted. No Mr. or whatever. That's what your dad really taught me. Humility, caring, an understanding that was all-encompassing, a love of true learning and to be welcoming to all. Those are very difficult lessons to learn in life. And Stafford taught them all to me by example. Oh, and a little poetry and literature as well!

Barry M Clock

L&C Class of '70