Masters of Teaching: Reynolds Price — and Who?

Today’s Chronicle, the Duke student newspaper, published the latest in a series on Reynolds Price, the celebrated writer of fiction, poetry, memoirs, essays and plays who taught at Duke for more than 50 years and died in January. Novelist Anne Tyler (my classmate) was among his early students, and James Taylor among his good friends.

Devoted to the institution, Price earned the devotion of his students.
He saw teaching as “not just imparting knowledge or information but as an engagement with a complete human being,” said one student. Even after he was paralyzed by malignant cancer in 1984, he kept on teaching and writing, now with a more spiritual bent. Like many, I am awed by his account of his physical and spiritual journey as detailed in A Whole New Life. And I have warm memories of returning to Duke in 2009 with my college buddies to celebrate Price’s 50th anniversary of teaching at Duke and the viewing of a documentary by Wil Weldon, the first personal assistant that Price hired after his paralysis.

What impelled me to write about Price, in a post crammed with links to lore about him, was the program for the children’s choir festival that I attended on Saturday. It honored Helen Kemp, a master teacher of children, who — in her 90s — directed her own compositions and eloquently spoke of how the choristers who came will carry their God songs and scriptures in their hearts for the rest of their lives.

The printed program had tips for master teachers that struck home. See if they help you to recall your master teachers this Valentine’s Day. If you are a teacher yourself, perhaps you will be challenged to take a closer look at the faces in front of you. Reading them, I was challenged. Here are some of them,

* “Teach each child, not only ‘the class.’ Honor each child with eye contact and by being near each child with your presence,” (Peter Jennings News, 4-4-1991).

* “Simplicity . . . a real artist [teacher] makes you feel you can do it…not impressive but transforming,” Erik Routley.

* “We are all meant to shine as children do . . . And as we let our light shine, we give other people permission to do the same,” Nelson Mandela.

* It is not enough to wire the world if you short-circuit the soul,” Tom Brokaw.

Wil Weldon has made another Reynolds Price documentary, entitled Pass it On. Remembering our own teachers, we can all reach out with a phone call, or send a card, or make a promise to ourselves to “Pass It On.”

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