The Cumberland Post

The Cumberland Post
My Backyard, Six Miles from the Cumberland River

Thursday, May 19, 2011


I've had some great teachers and mentors over the years. The thoughts they gave me that have stayed with me were always the simple, direct ones.

My Papa Jewell took me on a walk one time when I was about eight or nine. We passed the old stone steps to nowhere which were all that remained of an old Baptist church that had burned many years before. After awhile, we left the road and cut through an abandoned, rocky field. I remember the flat, smooth rocks and the prickly pears growing around them and the sharp blades of the Johnsongrass.

We turned at a fence row and walked along beside it to an old graveyard at the top of the hill. There were just a few grave markers in the shade of a big persimmon tree. I picked a yellowish fruit off one of the branches and told him it looked like it might be sweet, like a plum. "Why don't you give it a try?" he said. I did. Of course my mouth immediately puckered up with the bitter taste. He laughed and said, "Danny boy, sometimes pretty things ain't as good as they look."

A variation on my Papa's theme is in Shakespeare's Hamlet. After the ghost tells him his apparently loving uncle actually killed his father, Hamlet says, "One may smile, and smile, and be a villain." Sometimes people aren't as good as they appear to be. Over my lifetime, I've had to learn that lesson several times. In youth and middle age, I generally had a positive view of human nature and usually expected the best from anyone I met. Now, at this stage of my life, I'm a bit more wary and skeptical of people and their behaviors. I'm not a curmudgeon (at least I don't think I am!), and I don't always expect the worst. I simply hold on to my objectivity a bit longer and maintain a healthy suspicion until I feel comfortable in making a judgment. By the way, this is, I believe, one of the essential tenets of a conservative political philosophy.

Another thing I've learned helped me in my career as a teacher. In 1963, after a year of teaching college freshmen and grading their essays and struggling to come to a final assessment at the end of the semester, I turned to my department head for advice. He was an older man almost ready for retirement, quiet, friendly, approachable. It's funny but I have a vivid memory of the scene forty eight years ago. It was the end of the day and I remember there was a window with a venetian blind behind him and the setting sun's rays gave everything in his office a reddish, golden glow. I asked him how he made decisions about final grades for students who were on the line between two grades, say an "F" and a "D." He leaned back in his chair and said, "This may not be true for you, but I've learned from experience  it's best to decide in favor of the student. I sleep a lot better." Over the years, the times I didn't follow his advice taught me that he was right.

As a teacher I found I also learned a lot from my students. This might be a surprise to those outside the profession, but students were, in a sense, the best teachers and mentors--at least in my case. With me in class, it was always question and answer (sometimes my question, sometimes theirs), give and take, back and forth. I can honestly say that in every class, even the ones that had become somewhat "canned" over time, I was always surprised by a question I hadn't heard before or a way of looking at something I hadn't thought of before.

Try as I may, I could never play the role of "sage on the stage" that some teachers play. There's nothing wrong with this role. Some of the best teachers I had were like this and I loved them. But I had a few others who essentially said, "we're in this together, let's see what we can find out." I naturally fell into this category and was very comfortable with it.

There's another source of learning that I've found indispensable. Writing. I never truly understand what I know or believe about something until I write it down. I'm not just talking about using Wikipedia here for research, although it's certainly a valuable tool. Writing is learning for me in the sense that I have to find the appropriate words, phrases, clauses, sentences to shape my thoughts. At first my belief or knowledge is an amorphous mass. Then I begin the writing process and in that process, discover what I know or believe.

All of this is essentially why I enjoy blogging. When I blog/write about something, I learn about it. And then when I visit other blogs and read their posts and the comments they elicit, I'm learning even more.  I know what you're probably going to say next. There's a lot of misinformation out there on the Web. That's certainly true.

But it's not true of the blogs I read.


  1. There is much wisdom here in this short space, Dan. I share your thoughts about most all of this, too. There are precious few bennies about growing old but perspective is one of 'em.

    There's this, of course: "I'm not a curmudgeon (at least I don't think I am!), and I don't always expect the worst." Heh. I LOVE playin' the role of curmudgeon... a LOT. But that IS a pose.

  2. I have found over the years that my greatest pleasure is listening to people. Every one is a story book, and there are always lessons to be learned and new perspectives to be gained.
    Good post. Your Grandfather was a wise man, in that things are not always as they seem or imagined to be.

  3. Buck, I'm not so sure about the "wisdom" part but thanks for your comment. I can certainly see you playing (and enjoying) that "curmudgeon" role with relish, chomping down on your stogie and barking a complaint at some unsuspecting lad or lassie.

    Ed, I agree. In contemporary times, listening has almost become a lost skill. It's the other half of the act of communication and rarely gets the attention it deserves. For example, there are many college courses on public speaking, informal speaking, etc., but almost none on listening. The social fabric, which now seems a bit tattered, would be much improved if people in all the "communication" professions (especially politicians, media people, etc.) were forced to study and develop this skill.