The bravery of teachers 

Schooling kids takes real courage in our age of classroom shootings and budget cuts.

A clerk ther was of Oxenford also,

That unto logic haddè longe ygo.

As leenè was his hors as is a rake,

And he nas nat right fat I undertake …

In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s Clerk, with his lean horse, mean clothes (“thredbare”), and personal thinness (“holwe,” i.e., hollow), was clearly underpaid — like most of today’s teachers. My wife Jeanne’s family name is Clark, which comes from the English word “clerk” (pronounced clark), meaning scholar/teacher/record-keeper; she feels her name led her to becoming a pen-and-ink artist, recording what she sees around her. My connection here is a bit mordant: My birthday’s Dec. 29, and on that day in 1170 — two centuries before Chaucer — the great Archbishop Thomas à Beckett (Saint Thomas of Canterbury) was hacked to death in his Cathedral, which is why people make that pilgrimage.

Chaucer’s learnèd pilgrim, like Beckett, was unarmed, but could depend for protection upon his companion on the trip, the heroic Knight. Years ago, when Jeanne and I took a similar journey, we were amazed at how small the doorways and entrances in Canterbury were — it was hard not to think of the pilgrims as hobbits. (Of course, we all know, from the example of Bilbo Baggins, that although hobbits loved their books, they could still be extraordinarily brave.)

Teachers today have to be brave, too, even if we exclude the long list of attacks in schools (Newtown, Oakland, Columbine, Jacksonville, etc.). The recent surge in gun sales, as people race to arm themselves before President Obama sends his militia to kick in our doors and plant his Communist boot on our necks, statistically ensures that many more will occur in the future. Now that women can serve in combat, we can look forward to the day when teachers, too, will be able to carry M-16’s to their geometry classes.

We can debate the question of having guards in schools, with all of its complications, but one statistic is certain, showing up in chart after chart: the higher the rate of gun ownership, the more people die from gunshots. The United States is by far the champion here — not just in the numbing number of deaths, but in the death rate per capita. Statistics and common sense agree that the more guns in a country (or a city or a house), the more gun deaths will occur. Surprise!

President Obama’s inauguration speech stressed education: “Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword … we determined that a modern economy requires … school and colleges to train our workers …” Now come the details. We need to put our money to school. Instead of cutting education, we should make it stronger, safer, and better paid. Otherwise, all of our other goals (for jobs, climate change, equality of opportunity) will be undermined. Even Governor Scott sees this is scarier than our debt ceiling. (And if he sees it, the sky is really falling!)

Thomas à Beckett wrote, “All saints give testimony to the truth that without real effort, no one ever wins the crown.” I’m thinking here mostly about the public school teachers of our young children — our most important assets and therefore our most important teachers. Back in the 1950’s I taught 7th grade for two years, and though I loved the students, I wasn’t saintly enough to keep up the hard work. I hardly had time to breathe, much less actually write, so I left for graduate school and the — not easy, but easier — life of a college professor. No one puts in more effort than a good public school teacher. We want good ones, so let’s support them, armed or not, on their dedicated and difficult pilgrimage.

Of studie took he most cure and most heede.

Noght o word spak he more than was neede …

Souninge in moral vertu was his speche,

And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.

—both quotes describe the Clerk in The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)

Peter Meinke & Denise Duhamel will read their poems twice at St. Pete College on Thurs., Feb. 7 at 12:30 p.m. at its Clearwater Campus Library; and 5:30 p.m. at the Music Center at its Gibbs Campus, St. Petersburg.

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