by Shari Dinkins
Zimmerman. He walks into the classroom, stalks really. Swings behind the podium without looking up. He is clutching a wizened copy of Dubliners. A student behind me moans, a soft exhale. I watch the instructor as he sets down a yellow legal pad. A worn British-style suit, stovepipe pants. He leans forward, his body creating a “v” with the wooden podium. He has hair like the guy in Eraserhead. He starts to speak. I blink, shift my legs, cross my right leg over the left. Alpha leg. And I am interrupted by his talk. Literature. He does not ask us—he commands us to answer. I am dumbfounded. This is not what they told me, and my futile complaint is drowned out by his voice. Finally a student in the back row mumbles, “Ah, masturbation?” Giggles start…immediately cut off by Zimmerman’s look.
“Yes,” he says and I can hear the effort behind me as thirteen students scribble “masturbation” in their notebooks.
This guy is good. This guy is weird. And before I know it, I must be there. Every day. The next semester I switch from Business to English; I beg Zimmerman to let me into his Ulysses class.
This is how it started. My love of literature. But it does not match what the administrators tell me about motivating students. I am a teacher now. At forty. Sitting in a room with twenty other instructors, learning how to motivate students. They talk of expertise, empathy, enthusiasm, clarity and cultural responsiveness. But this is not my experience of Zimmerman, the man who changed me. Who changed the way I got information. He brought me around so quickly that I forgot about all about reason. About a degree that would guarantee me decent money; about a major that would give me skills for any career. I dropped into literature the way one pulls on worn, half-dirty pajamas.
True, he had expertise. And clarity. But empathy? No. In fact, the one time I saw him in his office, he hardly recognized me, did not refer to my work or participation in class; he seemed eager to get rid of me. I shuffled out, regretting my short skirt and Nancy Sinatra boots. This man would take no guff, give no easy grades. He was as straight as they come…straight to the heart of each novel, each short story. He wrangled us the way animal handlers teach rats to respond. And respond we did. The ones who did well in his course bought into Zimmerman completely; the lesser number groaned and shifted in their seats, hoping for it to be over.
Enthused? Yes, but not in the usual draw-out-the-student way. He loved literature. But whether you were going to dig in and get to the beauty, he could draw you close, but the finding? That was your work, not his. And the parts that stung like a low-bitten fingernail…ah, those were complimentary. Step right up and see human nature. Not as your mother showed you; not as your childhood friend described, but the hard, righteous truth. And Zimmerman? He was a first-class tour guide. Combination witness and distant father; engineer and coach. He was the blue-collar worker of words. And the man who knew. One only had to come. To class. Semester after semester. Cultural responsiveness? I’m not sure if Zimmerman had been trained to recognize differences. We were all sponges, possible receptacles. He did not gear his talk to take into consideration the Hispanic, the Filipino, the Chinese or the disabled. One either wanted to belly up and scoop up a tin cupful or not.
He was my hero…Zimmerman. I never met another like him. Oh, yes, other teachers who loved literature and could talk about it. But this man, he was my conduit to a greater meaning in life. He was the doorman that motioned me through, the circus barker who cajoled, the voice that made me tilt my head like the RCA dog.
I wanted to please him. There were no feel good techniques, no switching teaching methods to keep the short-attention span fed. No graphics, no worksheets, no in-class exercises. How can I explain it? It worked so well for those who bought into his style. We did not whine, we did not wheedle. We learned. Sometimes quietly; sometimes by shouting out what seemed absolutely outrageous. I remember my brain, and wondered if others were on the same dimly lit path. Masturbation? He wants me to say masturbation? In class. No that can’t be it. And a student behind me spelled it out for us. And he was right. Soon I was reaching into my own white-trash damaged brain and pulling out bits and pieces. When I was on-target, I was so happy I almost jumped from my seat. And when I was off, I bit my lip and thought that this punishment was not great enough for how I felt inside.
At the training session, an expert talks of inclusion, attitude, meaning and competence. I write it all down, yet I am thinking of Zimmerman. The man who showed me the way. And it does not fit. I’m not sure where to go, yet I remember him, old British suit, ruffled unruly hair, and that worn copy of Joyce.