Thursday, July 7, 2016

Feel the Byrne

"I'm ready to go anywhere,
I'm ready far to fade
Into my own parade,
Cast your dancing spell my way,
I'm ready to go under it."
       -- Bob Dylan

The education I received in the early Seventies changed everything. In 1970, I was lost in a dark forest, but by 1974 I had found a well lighted path. 

I survived my tour in the Air Force, and that four-year intellectual drought sparked my desire to return to North Florida Jr. College to learn stuff. Anything. Just something! I sure didn't do much of that the first time around. 

To get my Associate of Arts degree, I still needed two more English classes, surveys in American and British literature.

The latter was taught by Mr. Gerard Byrne, some old Irish guy -- he was 61, but looked much older -- who had a reputation for being both boring and demanding, a deadly mix.

He had ivory-white hair, tamed and parted, and was rail thin, just a tad beefier than a skeleton. He wore black-framed glasses that had gone out of style in the Forties, and was always clad in either a black or dark brown suit with a threadbare white shirt and an unfashionably thin tie.

According to campus rumors, Mr. Byrne had been a POW during World War II and developed an ulcer when he gave up his food rations to women and children. Back then, we believed milk soothed ulcers, so sometimes he brought a half-pint carton of it to class.

After I signed up for Mr. Byrne's class, I asked Ms. Tomlinson, my philosophy instructor, about him. She and I were walking across campus, and she stopped, peered into her ever-present mug of black coffee, then looked skyward and said, "He has a wonderful mind." She made that sound like a good thing.

But some of the old man's colleagues didn't much care for him, and one of them alleged that he had given up the priesthood due to "lust for a woman." I'm sure she meant to say "Because he wanted to marry," but that lacks the lurid and somewhat disturbing image of the hoary-haired scholar whoring around Dublin. 

I became a little intrigued by Mr. Byrne, but I still dreaded the class. The text (the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume One) was roughly the weight of a cinder block, bigger than the bible itself, 2,616 onionskin pages, all of them inked with Brit Lit from Beowulf to Samuel Johnson. 
Notes in the Norton: Beowulf

The anthology contained millions of words in small print, most of them lined up in the form of poetry, a genre I had detested ever since Mrs. Faught (in 11th grade) had taught us it was abstruse, Delphic, its meaning (called a "theme") hidden deep inside a dense cell, forever inaccessible to people like us without a magical key lubricated with esoteric knowledge. This key was owned by English teachers, and sometimes, apparently, they kept it in the Teacher's Edition of our Adventures in Literature book. 
English major's Bible next to Moby

Also, I learned, I had no prayer of appreciating poetry without an intimate understanding of such terms as "caesura," "metonymy," “onomatopoeia,” "assonance," "dactyl," and, well, "abstruse."

So I go into this class already counting the days till it ended. I also go into it as a journalism major. I came out of it knowing I would spend the rest of my life teaching literature. Why?

As my previous posts make clear, my brain slept through my first 23 years, but Mr. Byrne put an end to that slumber. Without meaning to, without directing anything toward me in particular, I heard him cry out to me, "Rouse up, rouse up, young man!"* 

He unknowingly tossed a match in the direction of my soul, and the ensuing wildfire lessened the haze that had obscured my vision, rendered into ashes the nutrient-sapping trivial underbrush. And months later, as the smoke cleared from the burn, I could see where I wanted to go. There was a Grail somewhere down the road, and I was bound to find it.

He taught his subject as if I weren't there, as if none of us were there. No discussion! No activities! No cheesy stunts from Dead Poets Society (okay, it hadn't been released yet)!
Seriously? I always found this pretty lame.

I can see him now, sitting behind his little teacher’s table, his thin legs intertwined like vines. He’s reading Beowulf so fiercely to a class of Seventies goofballs and pot-addled slackers that he might have been sucking the spirit from the pages, his face close to the text, one hand in his lap, the other curiously rubbing the table top. 

While my classmates nod off, dreaming of Cheech and Chong concerts, I sit entranced, enchanted, alternately writing furiously or staring at this man, my new idol, who, in the midst of an intellectual wasteland void of imagination and literacy, feels in his bones Beowulf’s courage and power, old Hrothgar’s muted shame, Grendel’s fury and loneliness, then Beowulf’s advancing old age. 

While students check their watches and stifle their yawns, the Norton anthology transports Mr. Byrne to another place and time, and I follow him gladly. The way he caresses the book, the way his old Irish eyes finally find my awakened ones, the sweet way he says my name with the soft Irish “R” ringing in and bringing out a new Roy . . . .

Clearly it wasn't Mr. Byrne's teaching skills or techniques that lured me into his fold. We just happened to arrive at the same crossroads at the same time, a textbook example of kairos -- the right time, the fullness of time, exemplified by the Buddhist adage, "When the student is ready, a teacher will appear."

Mr. Bryne and I found each other in his last year of teaching, and I heard him then and in my dreams calling me to replace him. 

This sounds like misty, nostalgia-induced, New Age, retrojected mystical fantasy woven from tales of pulling swords from stones or getting knocked off one’s ass on the way to Damascus, but this is truthful, this is factual. 

In a dream from which I awoke in a cold sweat, I was in Mr. Byrne’s class and he was staring at me in a most penetrating and uncomfortable way, then he looked away to his friend Ms. Tomlinson, nodded slightly, and said, “He’s the one.” 

Having been chosen and called by Mr. Byrne, I never looked back at journalism or considered any other careers. I wanted to love something the way he loved the words inside the Norton, even though I did not yet know what made them lovable.

And, yes, I wanted to grow up to waken other sleeping Roys and Royenas, and learn with them what language could do and show them that their work could be their passion and they need never dread a Monday again. 

I wanted to help them burn -- at least for a while -- with a hard gemlike flame, and change their lives forever. 

Was that too much to ask?

* Thanks again to William Blake for letting me borrow his words.

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