Archived Opinion

A tribute to Dr. Arnold, a true teacher

A tribute to Dr. Arnold, a true teacher

Sometimes, it feels like we’re just nowhere in this life. It was like that for me in the early 1980s.

I had dropped out of college and was just fumbling around in my hometown, taking whatever work came my way and living a life that was often vaguely self-destructive except when it was dangerously and specifically so. 

After two or three years of that, I decided I had better straighten up and do something with my life, so I enrolled at Appalachian State University — about an hour up the road from my hometown — though I still had absolutely no idea what I would major in or where I was headed after college.  

At that particular time, it was enough just to be somebody and to be somewhere. I would be a college student, that was enough for me, so I leaned into it and for the first time in my life, I became a good student. 

There is an old saying, often attributed to Buddha that says, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I must have been ready, because that is when Chip Arnold appeared. In his publications, he is known as Edwin T. Arnold, although everybody called him “Chip,” including most of the grad students and even some of the more confident undergrads. But he was always Dr. Arnold to me.  

When I was making out my class schedule, I really had no idea what classes to take other than the ones I had to have to complete my general education core, but since I had always enjoyed reading and writing, I was drawn to English classes as electives. That’s how I ended up taking a Southern Literature class with Dr. Arnold that focused on the writings of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. 

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I had no idea that Dr. Arnold was an actual Faulkner scholar. Unlike some professors, he did not view the classroom as a place where students were permitted to behold his brilliance for an entire semester, and then reflect it back in faithful and reverent papers that artfully regurgitated his own ideas back to him. 

Rather, he not only encouraged us to think for ourselves and form our own opinions on the stories and novels we read — he required it. It’s so much easier to tell people what you think they want to hear than to think through what you really think and feel about something, whether the topic is relationships, politics or William Faulkner. 

Chip Arnold’s classroom was a cross between a church and a playground, a place for us to meet twice a week and share our ideas and beliefs about whatever we were reading, while also playing around with a range of possibilities we had never considered.  

His classroom was a comfortable place, but it was also alive and exciting and unpredictable. We felt challenged, and sometimes we felt smart. Even the most bizarre interpretation or off-base remark was weighed and considered, perhaps gently redirected without even a hint of a suggestion that the student was foolish for ever having thought such a thing. 

For the most part, we came to class energized and prepared, but there was one day when, no one seemed to have much, if anything, to say. Dr. Arnold began class as he usually did, offering a little bit of context or preamble before posing questions to promote class discussion.

After several of these questions remained unanswered and the room became uncharacteristically awkward, Dr. Arnold sat down on the desk in front of the room, and then slowly turned and reclined on it “like a patient etherized upon a table,” arms outstretched and eyes closed.  

This went on for a full minute or two before someone finally giggled to punch a little hole in the silence and then someone else spoke through it in a small, tentative voice: “Dr. Arnold?” 

For the remainder of the semester, there was never another question that lingered in the air for more than a few seconds before someone offered some opinion on it. On the last day of the class, which I had been dreading for at least two or three weeks, Dr. Arnold called me aside as students were streaming out into their summer breaks. 

“Have you read this already?” he said, handing me a paperback of a book called “Outer Dark” by a writer named Cormac McCarthy. “Take it with you. You can just give it back to me in August when we come back for fall semester. I’d like to know what you think of it.” 

He wanted to know that I thought of it. Can you imagine? The very idea that books could mean so much, that people could sit around discussing them for hours, that this was even thing. This discovery opened up a world that I had no idea even existed. The notion that someone could make a living leading such discussions was more than I could comprehend. 

I have been in the classroom myself now for 35 years. On my very best days, when the students are leaning forward in their seats in my class trying not to talk over each other as we discuss Emerson, Hawthorne, Poe, or — yes, indeed — William Faulkner, I think of those long-ago days in Sanford Hall, when a skinny, small-town boy finally found he was somebody somewhere. 

And I think of Chip Arnold, who appeared when I needed him most. He revealed a thrilling new world and then convinced me I could live there.

That is what the very best teachers do.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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