“[Maggie] saw it was Dr. Kenn’s face that was looking at her; that plain, middle-aged face, with a grave, penetrating kindness in it, seeming to tell of a human being who had reached a firm, safe strand, but was looking with helpful pity toward the strugglers still tossed by the waves, had an effect on Maggie at this moment which was afterward remembered by her as if it had been a promise. The middle-aged, who have lived through their strongest emotions, but are yet in the time when memory is still half passionate and not merely contemplative, should surely be a sort of natural priesthood, whom life has disciplined and consecrated to be the refuge and rescue of early stumblers and victims of self-despair.”
-- from George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss(my italics)
I have often been accused of excessive idealism (I happily embrace the description), so my appreciation of this passage will not surprise my friends: I entirely agree with what Eliot suggests about the role older people, including older teachers, can play. For instance, I took pleasure in the fact that, in my last years as a teacher, in my 60’s and early 70’s, I could show “a grave, penetrating kindness” toward my students. At that point in my life, it was not a silly, irresponsible kindness, one that simply wanted to win over the students and become their “friend”, but rather a kindness that had some weightiness behind it and could sometimes penetrate into the heart of a situation. It was a kindness, I might say, that wore work gloves instead of kid gloves, a kindness that delivered itself to the students more like strong medicine than a sugary soft drink. In Eliot’s words, I felt like I had, in some sense, “reached a firm, safe strand”, from where I could, indeed, offer a helping hand to the “strugglers”, my sometimes scatterbrained, befuddled, and brave teenage students. Having lived 50+ more years than they, I had been there, done that so often that I could, to some degree, show the way to the wandering souls in my classes. Perhaps, as the author suggests, older teachers, like I was, can stand before their students like a “promise” – a guarantee that the darkness can eventually become a little lighter. She uses the words “natural priesthood”, which might smack of egotism and false pride, but there may be some truth in the idea that a senior teacher can fulfill the role of a “priest”, who, to use the original Greek definition, could be thought of as simply an “elder”, someone who’s been through the wars, survived, and returned to offer instructions and warnings. And after all, don’t these young people in our classrooms need that? Don’t they need, in the midst of the mayhem and dread of these times, to hear words from the enduring veterans of life’s wars, words that carry gravity, kindness, and a promise?