An endearing coming of age teaching story
When we are in school, we consider ourselves fortunate when we find ourselves in the company of inspiring teachers. We value them at the time, and if they are very good, then they stay with us for the rest of our lives. We may not remember much of what they taught us, but their example can serve to inspire us, to guide us in our lives. We connect with them in the classroom, and that connection, brought about by some magic we can never quite figure out, remains long after we have left behind the world of textbooks and exams.
In The Fall They Come Back (Bloomsbury, 2017, 399 pages) novelist Robert Bausch offers us the story of Ben Jameson and the two years he teaches at Green Acres Preparatory School, a small private school in Virginia. Ben, who thinks he may eventually go to law school, takes the job of teaching English to high school students right out of college while he debates his future plans. He lives with his girlfriend Annie, whom he intends to wed, and joins a staff of eccentric teachers.
The oldest member of the staff, the oddly named Professor Bible, takes Ben under his wing and throughout the story offers him sage bits of wisdom on teaching and on life. Ben also befriends Doreen, a teacher his own age with whom he shares confidences and an occasional cigarette. (The novel is set in the mid-eighties, and a number of characters, including some of the students, smoke.)
During his two years of teaching, Ben finds himself tangled up in the lives of three students: Suzanne Rule, a girl who never speaks or looks anyone in the eye; the wild and rebellious Leslie Warren, daughter of a wealthy oil company executive; and George Meeker, who has suffered physical abuse from his father. As Ben tries to help these students face adversity and manage their problems, his girlfriend Annie constantly advises him to back off a bit, telling him it is his “Christ-complex” at work, that some of the difficulties he is trying to solve lie outside the scope of his role as teacher.
And this conflict, less between Annie and Ben than between Ben and his conscience, is at the heart of In The Fall They Come Back. How far are we supposed to go when we see others in pain? What happens when we offer help but fail to anticipate all the consequences? What if that old axiom “No good deed goes unpunished” is true?
Ben begins his narrative by telling us “This is not a story about teaching.” In truth, it is very much a story about teaching. Via Ben, Robert Bausch gives readers some great methods of teaching young people how to write and how to take in the details of the world around them. Like all good teachers of English composition, Ben spends much of his time outside the classroom correcting essays and papers. Even more, the novel raises the question: What qualities make for a good teacher? How far should a teacher go in his interactions with his students? And where are the lines drawn in the relationship between student and teacher?
In The Fall They Come Back is also a fine coming-of-age novel. Ben is scarcely older than his students, and as we follow him through the joys and vicissitudes of his life in and out of the classroom, we witness growth in him and in his students.
Now, two quibbles:
First, the school requires the students to keep journals, folding down any page they’d wish to keep private. Mrs. Creighton, the head of the school, orders Ben to read these folded pages, and he generally complies. As a former teacher, I had several of my classes keep journals, but always told them that if they didn’t want me reading something, they shouldn’t write it in the journal. The folded page journals of Ben’s students offer various moments of revelation, but the practice of the folded page strikes me as bogus. Students would never believe the promise of ignoring a folded page.
Second, in the middle of the novel, while Ben talks with Professor Bible, who has retired from teaching because of health issues, Ben gives us some of his philosophy. Unlike Professor Bible, who has a romantic side and believes vaguely in a god and an afterlife, Ben follows a cold creed of atheism and a morality grown from the mechanisms of biology, chemistry and physics. At one point, he says of Professor Bible: “I always wanted it to have meaning. And he was always trying to convince me, but he never did, and I soon tired of his oddly provincial ideas about God and Man and the universe. He was too educated for those beliefs, frankly.”
Such a view as Ben’s — “I think of the world as this temporary patch of blue and green in a frozen, empty, almost lightless universe” — left me confused. If that is the case, then why is he bending over backwards time and again trying to manage the affairs of his students? Moreover, he reveals his own “provincial” opinions by his critique of Professor Bible’s ideas, implicitly lumping him with believers like Einstein, Newton, Descartes, Darwin, and director of The Human Genome Project, Francis Collins.
But these are minor quarrels with an otherwise fine novel. In The Fall They Come Back kept my interest and earned my affection from the first to the last page.