Six years later I discovered how much happier I could be as a teacher than as a department head. John, sometimes the lessons we teachers impart take a few years to sink in. The first few years that I worked here, John was teaching American Literature, so we often chatted about the works on the syllabus, as well as some that weren’t. It turned out that we were both fans of Emerson and Thoreau. John has reminded me of Thoreau, especially his essays from Walden. In “Where I Lived and What I Lived For, Thoreau questions the need for the thing we call “progress.” As I remember John as someone who refuses to use anything but paper, quill and ink in his classroom, this passage seemed appropriate. Thoreau said that our nation
…lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain… But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.
If there’s one guy who is not going to live too fast — who is going to remember the value of a slow walk around the lake and the joy of reading a paper book — and who definitely will not be overridden by the train of technology, it is Bajger. As department head, I observed a few of John’s classes every year. The headmaster for academics during those early years said to me, “Could you please just get him to change his overheads? He’s been using the same overheads for ever.” Naturally, I failed. I’ve seen John extol the virtues of a simple declarative sentence and explain the merits of a well-placed gerund, and I’ve watched him encourage students to write an elegant and precise THREE paragraph essay (those other two are just extra).
Yes, the Dim factor radiates within John’s students long past the end of the school year. Perhaps this luminous concept led to their greatest collective memory of all: Gatsby’s Green Light. “Gatsby Believed in the Green Light,” they all told me. In fact, they seemed to think that everyone had a green light. At the end of senior year, I had students thinking that Beowulf, because he believed in the DIM FACTOR of the Green Light, Crossed the straits of Denmark into East Egg to Save Daisy Buchanan from Grendel the monster. Over the nine years that John and I have worked together I have recognized that John’s teachings stay with his students. As a headmaster once told me, students recognize that Bajger’s class isn’t just about English; it’s really about life. And the most important lessons that we teach our students, we teach by example. Bajger’s students, have seen the example of a human being who could live like Thoreau and think like Emerson, who said,
There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.
|The plot of ground given to John to till has been a classroom, with thousands of students. They’ve grown up, and they bring with them a memory of a human being who listened to them, and who shared the simple joys of his life: Of paying attention to family. Of having lunch with your wife every day. Of Listening to the words and music of Bob Marley and Bob Dylan. And John Keats, an English Romantic poet. In one of his letters Keats coined a phrase that stuck with John and with many scholars. The phrase is “negative capability,” a quality that he ascribed to creative geniuses who are “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason. Keats believed that a genius is able to shed the need to know or understand everything and instead appreciate beautiful things for being beautiful. Keats concluded that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.
John also liked Bob Marley, who famously said, “Don’t Worry about a thing; Cause Every Little Thing’s Gonna Be Alright. It is a great hope of mine, John, that you will come back and sub for me, so that you can remind my students — as they stress about grades and exams, and grades, and deadlines, and of course, their grades — that there’s a beautiful world out there to enjoy, and to remind them of one clear fact: “You’re golden.” I’ll leave a cassette player for you.
I think it’s fitting to end this tribute to John with a few lines borrowed from Hemingway’s description of his ultimate hero (and mine and perhaps John’s, too) Santiago the fisherman: He was an old man who taught alone in a classroom, and he had gone eighty-four weeks now without seeing a curriculum map. Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.
Thanks for a good ten years, John!