What A Teacher Does
Edwin Brush, an English teacher at Granada High School from the mid 1960’s until his retirement many years later, died in 2002. A prolific writer, he left hundreds of poems behind. In the years since his death, his former student Karen Hogan, along with his widow Lee, collected his work for publication. On the 29th of October 2016, many of his former students, colleagues, friends, widow, and children, gathered in Livermore at Alden Lane Nursery to celebrate the release of six volumes of his work. Former students – Karen Hogan, Polly Greist, and this writer, Barbara Jessing, read from his works, remembered touching and hilarious moments, and reflected on the lifelong impact that a gifted teacher has had. It was one sweet afternoon. Do you remember Ed Brush? “Livermore Stories” invites you to contribute your story about Ed, or about any teacher who influenced your life.
By Barbara Jessing
When I met Ed Brush in the fall of 1964, I was a partially formed human being. I say that with affection, because it was clear that Mr. Brush looked upon fourteen year old partially formed human beings with affection and respect. I wasn’t yet accustomed to being regarded as an adult with a mind, but it helped me turn into one.
He must have initiated every class year in the same way: a takedown of Joyce Kilmer’s Poem, “Trees”. A ditty more than a poem; that was the point. He read it once, invited a roomful of partially formed human beings to react to it; then savaged its rhymy couplets. This, we learned, was not to be confused with poetry. I remember thinking that it seemed a bit harsh, shocking, for a sheltered child, fresh out of a parochial grade school ruled by Dominican nuns. He challenged sentimentality; and pushed us to recognize true beauty when we saw it, read it, heard it.
And over the next four years, he built us up from the rubble of Joyce Kilmer. In the process of writing this remembrance, I could hear his voice, pushing me to find the right words; the rhythm; to avoid empty generalities or clichéd phrases; to create a direct experience grounded in the real world.
Line by line, we analyzed Shakespeare plays, and he gleefully untangled the sometimes smutty wit in those lines. Shakespeare was storyteller to ordinary people – “groundlings” as the poorest occupants of the cheap seats were known. There were field trips to San Francisco to see the modern day equivalent – raw and experimental dramas. I remember Edward Albee plays at the American Conservatory Theater; visits to City Lights Book Store in North Beach; learning the work of the beat poets. A line from Lawrence Ferlinghetti – “I am Perpetually Awaiting the Rebirth of Wonder” – stayed with me with the power of a mantra — and helped me understand my essential optimism in a dark world.
I can only imagine that these freewheeling field trips must surely be illegal now.
The epic assignment of the last semester of English was the Shakespeare Paper. We heard about it like an urban legend. The anticipation built, year by year. We’d select a play, extract ten lines, and find in those lines the integrity and the essential themes of the play. In the hurried few days before we left to attend the poetry event, I went looking for that paper, and I found it in a dusty box under the eaves in our attic. Somehow, in all the places I have lived since 1968 – from California to Nebraska – I have carried that paper with me. It is 33 pages typed on an old manual typewriter on onion skin paper; it has held up pretty well in less than perfect storage. I had chosen Antony and Cleopatra – why, I can’t remember. It’s part history, part romance; part dysfunctional family drama. Maybe that was the hook. I wrote about lines in the closing scenes, spoken by Caesar over the corpses of the doomed lovers. I was certainly enthused about true love, and how they fought the social constraints of the day, and just plain had each other with, and I quote myself here, “irrational abandon”. I thought Caesar, the symbol of social and political pretensions, betrayed the heart of Antony — Cleopatra being collateral damage.
I’ve graded a thousand student papers since then so I imagine myself in the mind of Ed Brush as he read this earnest and passionate paper, written by an almost fully formed human being, who saw a hint of feminist potential in Cleopatra; and was drawn to the pursuit of pure and true love in the shadow of political intrigue and war. In the years to come there would be a place for this curiosity. He knew what he was doing.
There’s a comment at the end. “It’s impossible to place a letter grade on an achievement such as this fine paper. I can say this much. I believe it would receive an “A” at Cal, Stanford, or Harvard.” I left for UC Berkeley that fall. My Shakespeare paper went with me. It is a message forever held close to the heart,.
Though I had my sights set on a degree in psychology, I fell in love with literature; with writing; with the complexity of human stories. Eventually I found a way to bring these passions together, but at the time it felt like turning away from a beloved teacher, to pursue that psychology degree and the subsequent career as a therapist, where I often assigned literature, film, and plays as curative elements in therapy; where writing became a therapeutic endeavor.
Ed Brush wrote a recommendation for me to the Honors Program in Classics and Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley, and I was accepted. It was a perfect path into the academic world. We had small classes and excellent professors; the standard at that time being that the first two years of Liberal Arts classes were held in huge lecture halls and section meetings with graduate assistants. Once again I felt heard and respected; with a new edge of challenge. It was not so easy to produce work of academic quality, but I knew how to dig in.
In 1968 our class was about to set out into a turbulent world. Some of our classmates went directly from Senior English to Viet Nam. Others took to the streets to question that same war. Many were on the ground in the urban conflicts of the civil rights movement. There were profound changes coming in the lives of women. People with mental illnesses were flooding out of institutions worthy of the middle ages; human warehouses. We were on the edge of a vast social upheaval. He must have known that.
When I think about his influence now, I wonder how my life might have been different had I never known him; had there been a traditional, straitlaced someone in his place; someone who did not love partially formed human beings or who saw the teaching process as routine or tiresome; autocratic, who was horror of horrors, a lover of Joyce Kilmer verse.
I am also speaking as a parent of two daughters. Each found the gift of such a teacher; someone who saw their talents and challenged them, and changed their lives. As much as we love our children, we need someone else to walk them the last few steps to the threshold of the adult world – that shaky bridge where we can’t go. Now I know that’s what Ed Brush was up to, and I love him for it.