Several Men

The fourth of five vignettes.


Photo: M. O. Stevens, via Wikimedia Commons

M. F. K. Fisher had a magic gardener. This fellow, she wrote, understood the daily weather, the seasons and the various planting cycles, the necessity of encouraging or discouraging bird and insect life, landscape arrangement, grafting, and everything associated with the garden. He was an old Scotsman who, she discovered, in an earlier life, had written extensively on horticulture; and here he was, in his retirement, working for her, and quietly teaching her to tend her garden. He was the Platonic ideal of the gardener. And, of course, she wrote, he did not actually exist.

But I did not believe her.

I knew not only that he somewhere existed, but that I might be lucky enough to meet him face to face. Those besotted by an interest long for the perfect teacher. He who would be not only the complete master of his craft, but of himself: capable of leading the student, through a brilliant mixture of silence and misdirection, to reach his own, practicable conclusions.

Socrates, it is fairly clear, loved all humanity except his wife. And he may actually have loved her too, but she did not interest him. He preferred to go out of an evening, and observe, and talk to people. He was the wise old owl who sat on an oak. The more he heard the less he spoke, the less he spoke the more he heard, now wasn’t he a wise old bird? His interest, and his constant question, was, “What do you think?”

The perfect teacher, then, would not impart but would increase the chances of the student’s discovery of knowledge. He, like Socrates, would begin with humility before a mystery, the mystery to which he had dedicated his entire life; and his discoveries in blessed propinquity to his beloved craft would extend both vertically, through history, and horizontally, into fields however remotely related.

Scotty was a pilot.

He’d spent fifty years in aviation, as a student of aeronautical engineering, a military flyer, a pilot for the airlines, charter companies, film crews, and private individuals. He had an uncounted number of hours, and every rating known.

He had fifty years of unabated study of winds and weather, mechanics, aeronautics, aircraft design, pilotage, and he understood and loved teaching.

There he was, craggy and silent as Mary Fisher could wish. I could not ask him a question he could not answer, and his answer, almost invariably, was, “What do you think?”

He taught me to fly a plane.

David Mamet is a stage and film director as well as the author of numerous acclaimed plays, books, and screenplays. His latest book is Three War Stories.