A strong teacher does not provide students with skill-sets or self esteem. A strong teacher does not explain very much and does not endorse every opinion. A strong teacher uses himself or herself as the instrument of the material they choose to teach, therefore all strong teachers choose the material they understand to be their own language, whether that’s the periodic table of elements, or Spanish verbs, or the politics of ancient Athens, or William Carlos Williams.
You didn’t have to spend more than ten minutes with BJ Rolfzen to know he was that teacher, because poetry, literature, continued to be his native language many years after he left the classroom. I met him in Hibbing during Dylan Days 2007, my own years teaching high school and university students gave us a small connection, and we spoke for about an hour, never once mentioning anything that sounded like Zimmerman or Dylan. We talked about how teaching is an end in itself, not a useful track to somewhere else. We talked about the bureaucratization and anti-intellectualism of much of current education in the US. We talked about high moments in our classrooms, and the Sisyphean work of grading papers. We talked about William Carlos Williams–the BJ Rolfzen I met was still a fine and clear instrument for all that’s enduringly fresh and bracing in American modernism. He was indeed frail in 2007, and his eyes and voice were hungry for more expression, more connections, more poetry.
It can’t be hard to imagine the charismatic figure he cut in the classroom, offering his students two important ways of being: the dynamic and vigorous intellectual, and the exhilaration and audacity of the American voices he introduced them to. You wouldn’t have to be the most impressionable or gifted student in Rolfzen’s class to respond to a vitality, a promise, an invitation to wake up, in the voices he taught through his own voice. There is something to embodying language and other voices, and something to beguiling with authority. It’s not hard to see BJ Rolfzen as this kind of teacher, and not hard to imagine a peculiarly susceptible student discovering something about being alive to past voices and then communicating that aliveness so the past is renewed and not simply discussed.
The people I met in Hibbing regarded BJ Rolfzen and his family with a respect and warmth that had nothing to do with historical accidents. Anyone who encountered this man through the path of historical accident, as I did, will share a stab of sympathy for the Rolfzens, and for the residents of Hibbing who clearly loved and esteemed this man as he deserved.