Thursday, November 13, 2014

When Your Hero Dies

My son's teacher gave me this piece of his work during our parent-teacher conference tonight.

She told me that it touched her.  When I read it, it brought tears to my eyes.  My son is a compassionate little boy. He has assimilated all that he has learned about the history of the US, war, and what it means to be a hero, and he gave that label to his great-grandfather.  He knows that he is lucky to have met his great-grandfather - to have spent time with him playing at an amusement park this past summer - and I know that he will be sad when Great Grampa goes to heaven.  We are all sad when we lose a hero.

I lost a hero this week.  One of my mentors, George Hillocks, Jr., passed away yesterday.  I met George in the pages of Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice, a book that profoundly impacted the way that I teach.  I was fortunate to meet George in person the same summer I read this book - and to continue to bump into him frequently over the years.  He sat on my dissertation committee.  He made me read Aristotle. He pushed my thinking.  He is a giant upon whose shoulders I stand.  I will miss him.

I could say much about how George influenced my teaching and research.  His concept of "gateway activities" changed the way I taught writing.  His exploration of argument influenced my own line of inquiry.  His articulation of the kinds of knowledge that writers need has allowed me to explore new territory.  I joke with my colleagues that I am "taking Hillocks digital" in my work - but I am really just applying everything I learned from him.

My favorite memory of George doesn't come from the pages of his writing.  It doesn't come from the talks he gave at conventions.  It doesn't come from the intimate workshop that I attended where I saw him "in action."  It comes from a moment when I had him all to myself.

We celebrated NCTE's 100th anniversary in 2011 in Chicago, George's hometown.  After the general membership meeting while the attendees enjoyed cake, I saw George wandering aimlessly at the back of the room.  As I approached him, he said, "Kristen, what is this?  What kind of party doesn't have alcohol?"

Anyone who knew George personally knows that this is just the kind of thought he would have - and that he would say out loud.  I laughed, and asked him if I could help him find someone.

"I'm not sure where I am supposed to be right now.  I think they are coming to get me," he replied.

"Ok," I said.  "Then how about we sit here for a bit together while you wait."

For the next half hour, I had the most amazing conversation with one of my heroes.  He talked about Bernie McCabe (a fellow teacher) who changed him as a person, as a teacher.  "He showed me how," George told me.  Just as you did for me, I thought.  He teared up a bit when he talked about his family and his students.  He spit fire when he remembered someone calling one of them stupid.

And then, in a moment that brought our relationship as mentor and mentee full circle, he mentioned Aristotle.  When he required that I read and incorporate Aristotle's view of logic into my dissertation, which was based on Toulmin argument, I did so reluctantly, and I discarded many of the memories of my reading.  When he mentioned Aristotle's name that night at NCTE, I was worried that I would not be able to have an intelligent conversation.  But here is what George said to me that night.  I wrote it down so that I would not forget so these are very close to his own words.
When I die, I'd like to talk to Aristotle.  I'd ask him, "How'd you figure out all that shit?"  And then I'd tell him what all that shit means.  I'd tell him he got some things wrong.  But he also got a lot of things right.
Have you ever thought what you would say to your hero if you had the chance to spend half an hour with him or her?  I was fortunate to spend that time with George.  And I'm hoping that George has requested his appointment with Aristotle.  Knowing him, he's already had the meeting and is figuring out how to let his academic family know what he is now thinking so we can continue his work.

We are sad, as a profession, for the loss of one of our giants.  We will continue to carry all that George has taught us about teaching, learning, and literacy into the next generations.  Perhaps someday, when George and I meet again, he will say, "You know all that stuff about digital literacy?  How'd you figure out all that shit?"  And I will say, "because of you."

Thank you, George, for your dedication to students, young and old, and for your tireless advocacy for our field.  We will miss you.