"Our whole business in this life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen."
                                                  St. Augustine

Fifty-one years ago, when I was a young man of 32, I sat in a graduate seminar on the novels of Dickens and Eliot with a professor whom I later came to realize was in four different ways the greatest teacher I would ever have. That professor was James Barry, and I have not stopped visiting with him in memory and imagination for half a century. He still shines inside me the way saints do in other people.

I did not need more work that semester in Jim Barry’s class. I was teaching full-time at Wilbur Wright Junior College; I had a home that required a good deal of maintenance and yard work; and my wife and I had two young sons, 4 and 2, with a third one to be born in the closing days of my course with Jim. My plate, as the cliché goes, was already full. And yet vastly more work is exactly what Jim required of me. On the first day of class, he explained we would be reading seven Dickens novels—only one of which was less than 500 pages—and three Eliot novels: collectively more than 5,000 pages, not including all the critical and scholarly work we would also be reading. And we would be writing seven short papers and one long research paper. Altogether, it was more than twice as much work as I had ever done for a single course in my life. And I whispered not a single word of complaint because I suspected I was in for the literary adventure of my life. And I was more than right, for my course with Jim was not just a literary adventure; it was also a moral adventure that is still going on inside me. Getting me to happily do twice as much work as I had ever done for a course was only the first way Jim Barry was the greatest teacher of my life.

The second way was through all the innovations Jim quietly employed to make us not just better readers and critics, but better teachers and better human beings. On the day I registered for Jim’s course I did not know of Jim’s intense interest in finding ways to teach better. Jim was, after all, a full professor and chairman of Loyola University’s department of English—and innovative teaching is not what full professors and department chairmen are known for. But teaching in the most effective ways possible was Jim’s passion.

The first thing Jim did was to make us responsible for much of what happened in class. Each session a student (sometimes two) was responsible for leading the class discussion; a second student delivered a short, careful report on a critical study of that session’s novel; and a third student made a written record of the session and distributed copies for all class members by the next meeting of the class. Jim was silently getting us to be present to, and mull over, each class session at least twice. Everyone in the class was north of thirty, and most of us were also teachers, so Jim put these realities to work. He knew we would learn more deeply if we took charge of the teaching, and he knew we would more readily argue with each other than with him. Without calling attention to the fact, he was also helping us to see how we might become better teachers. All of Jim’s moves that semester came out of knowing that the person in the classroom who learns the most . . . is the teacher. He was making us take charge of that learning.

The deepest way he made sure that happened was in his request for those seven short papers. He called those papers “journal entries,” and he asked that we make copies of each one for all the other members of the seminar. Calling those short papers journal entries and asking us to respond spontaneously to anything at all in Dickens and Eliot and then having them be communications with everyone else in the classroom—all of that taken together succeeded more brilliantly with me than even Jim could have imagined. For the first time in all my years in school, I was free to put my very life as a human being and passionate reader onto pages others would read. That assignment was one of the two most liberating things that ever happened to me in a classroom. For the first time in my life I felt myself becoming an essayist.

The third way Jim was my greatest teacher is the most difficult to write about: in his body and soul Jim contained more goodness than any other teacher I have ever known. I am having trouble finding the words to describe this goodness because it pervaded everything he did—and because it was so quiet. Goodness and Jim were simply twined together as one thing. Everything Jim did was good. If you’re lucky, you will know perhaps half a dozen people like this in your whole life. They walk in the door, and pure goodness is there, and you can find no adequate words to say why.

So instead of giving you evidence, let me tell you a couple of stories. In my “journal entries” I often argued that Dickens was sentimental, manipulative, and moralistic, that his characters were one-dimensional, and that he relied on coincidence to move his plots. No matter how strident and one-sided my arguments were, no matter how much I did not pay attention to the genius of Dickens, no matter how much I must have been trudging in thick-soled boots all over the Dickens that Jim surely loved, he never took offense. Instead, he read every one of my journal entries/essays with extreme care and compassion—one of his responses was two pages long!—and that care and compassion eventually allowed Dickens’ genius to bloom into full, joyful life inside me, for which I shall always be grateful.

And now a more pointed story. From the first day, our class was formed in the shape of a circle with Barry one of us. One student, however, chose not to join the circle. She was an aloof, vinegary woman of about fifty with a fine intellect and wide reading. But she refused to sit in the circle.

On one occasion in the middle of the semester she became a window through which I caught my most direct glimpse into Barry’s soul. In my fourth journal entry, I concluded a two-page attack on “the cheap morality” of Hard Times with this sentence: “But one image sticks with me and sums up what I mean better than anything I can say, and it is also a statement of how effective Dickens’s morality is. Mrs. ____________ sits outside the circle and we sit in it and discuss how Mr. Dickens would like us to be decent human beings.”

In the margin beside my sentence Jim responded, “Your premise, I presume, is that everybody must be brought into the circle!” After the next class (at which he returned my entry marked with his highest grade) I saw Jim waiting for the elevator and tried to explain that my comment had not been a criticism of the class or of him but of Dickens’s cheap morality. As the elevator doors opened, I saw that I had not succeeded. Jim was standing silently in his navy overcoat, his eyes full of hurt. He stepped in, the doors closed, and he disappeared.

The rest of the evening I could think of nothing but the look in Jim’s eyes. Did he think my comment blamed him for his inability to bring Mrs. __________ into our circle? Did he think I was suggesting he was hard-hearted for letting her sit out there? Or was he disturbed that all the powers of literature and all the good intentions in the world are sometimes powerless to bring about redemption and community? Finally, late that night I called him. I can no longer summon our words, but a half century after that night I still remember the compassion Jim felt for this woman and the palpable relief we both felt during that call. It etched into my mind how much Jim Barry cared about that class, about Mrs. ___________, and about the suffering souls of this world. It was my most direct glimpse into the pervasive but quiet goodness of Jim Barry.

During that semester Jim was also the chairperson of the largest professional organization devoted to improving the teaching of writing, the College Composition and Communications Conference (4Cs). His biggest task was organizing the annual meeting of thousands of English teachers that spring in New Orleans at which Jim asked me to chair one of the sessions. At a time when virtually no senior member of a graduate English department taught composition classes or took an interest in theories and methods of teaching composition, Jim surely knew his role in the 4Cs was not a way to career advancement; he chose this role for only one reason: because he cared deeply about improving the teaching of writing, the single most pervasive, even though undervalued, thing we English teachers do. This terribly time-consuming task was simply another of Jim’s many acts of goodness.

Innate goodness also led Jim to head up a neighborhood organization that became the driving force to convert a private golf club on hard times into a public park and golf course.

But in none of these stories or actions have I adequately caught the true goodness I saw each time I sat in our circle together. At its deepest, Jim’s goodness was not to be found in the nameable, countable things he accomplished. Rather, it was in his warm smile and eyes of welcome, his genuine humility, his quiet searching into the souls of others, and his always present willingness to help those in need. It is a demeanor I have witnessed on a steady hour-by-hour basis in only a few people in my whole life.

The key to Jim’s last virtue as my greatest teacher did not come into my hands until 40 years after the course. In 2013, because Jim had never stopped shining inside me, I finally realized I had to write an essay about him. So, for the first time in all those years, I opened the thick folder of papers and notes from our course.

It was a moment movies love. One by one, I reread my passionate journal entries, then my research paper on David Copperfield’s eight-stage hero’s journey, then the records of all those sessions we sat with Jim looking into the light of those writers who still shone inside me.

But the thing from that folder that most gripped me was a single mimeographed sheet of paper Jim handed us without comment on the last day of class. On it were four quotations that I read over and over for the first time 40 years later. Since then, I have gone back to read them many more times. At first they were a puzzle to me. Why had Jim chosen the last day of class to give us these particular quotations? Why were these passages arranged in this particular order? Why had Jim not commented on these quotations? Most importantly: Why did Jim put this single sheet of paper into my hands? What did he mean for it to do? Why was I so taken by this single mimeographed sheet of paper?

Here are those four quotations.

“It is the end. Uriah has some half-dozen more writhes and twists left in him, but essentially he is caught by the heels. Once more the good and the brave have triumphed, although not without difficulty and pain, over treachery and cruelty, just as the devotion of Daniel Peggotty has ultimately found and brought peace to Little Em’ly. If this seems a simple philosophy, it might be asked whether the belief that evil always carries off the victory is so much more world-wise. Dickens can hardly be accused of closing his eyes to the existence of suffering and injustice, but he believed that courage and integrity, supported by labor and intelligence, could overcome the obstacles in their path. He believed that a persevering energy and determination were the strong points in his own character and the roots of his success.” — Edgar Johnson, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952), II, 699-700.

“His novels are like the gigantic day-dreams of the little outcast in the blacking factory: the cruel adults are all severely punished; the cold sneering people are mocked and buffeted; but all the friendly and lovable souls are generously entertained, and at last the fires and lamps are lighted, the curtains drawn to hide the dark streets, the tables set with food and drink, and all the good people are happy.” — J. B. Priestly, The English Novel (London: Ernest Benn Ltd., 1927), p. 68.

“The meaning of the Resurrection is not that nice guys will hereafter finish first, not that virtue pays, not that the good triumphs, not that this world is a world for hope in progress and the future—but the reverse. Resurrection is required because this world is ruled by lies. Such resurrection as occurs occurs in faith, not experience.” — Michael Novak, “The Political Identity of Catholics,” Commonweal, XCVII (Feb. 16, 1973), p. 441.

O Lord, our Lord, how glorious is thy name in all the earth, thou who hast exalted thy majesty above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of little children and babes at breast thou hast prepared praise to confound thine enemies, that thou mayest check the enemy and revengeful foe.
When I gaze at the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and stars, which thou hast made:
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? Or the son of man, that thou hast care for him?
And thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, thou has crowned him with glory and honor;
Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet.
— Psalms, 8: 2-7

When Jim put this mimeographed sheet into my hands on the last day of class, I must have taken little note of it, for 40 years later, on that day in 2013, I seemed to be holding it in my hands for the first time. At first, I found these particular quotations in this particular order, without comment of any kind, a mystery, so I wondered my questions over and over. On that day a hint of an answer came from all my wondering, and in the years since then I have become clearer and clearer about what Jim had in mind when he handed us this uncommented upon sheet of paper.

Taken together, and in this order, these passages are the grandest and subtlest prayer I have even encountered. The first two passages invoke the wish implicit in Barry’s behavior as a person and a teacher throughout the course but also implied in all of Dickens’s novels: that we behave with love, courage, and sacrifice to overcome our own selfishness and the evil of the world. The third passage admits we may not accomplish the good we strive for in this life and that it may be accomplished only by a resurrection in another life. But it is in the last passage from Psalms that Barry’s prayer reaches its apogee and true fullness. In the Psalmist’s words—“Thou hast given him [mankind] dominion over the works of thy hands”—Barry’s prayer returns us to our actions and our lives. Jim Barry’s prayer, Dickens’s prayer—the prayer of redemption—depends, finally, upon us: we readers, we human beings, our acts of love and sacrifice.

As redemption in the world of Dickens’s novels depends upon the love and sacrifice of Mr. Brownlow, the Cheeryble brothers, Daniel Peggotty, John Jarndyce, Sissy Jupe, Little Nell, the reborn Ebenezer Scrooge, Joe Gargery, Sidney Carton, so redemption in the world at large depends upon us. Without forcing it upon us, Barry was praying that we internalize these characters and behave with love. In the words of Augustine, Barry was asking us “to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen.” It was his final act in that course, and it was committed with more love and wisdom than I knew existed in a classroom.

It was also committed with the patience of a saint—it took 40 years for me to begin to realize these words Jim silently put into my hands on that last day of class were a prayer. In the countless times I have sat with this sheet of paper in my hands or considered their words in memory during these last eleven years, a single question has haunted me each time: Have I used what God has given me to bring good into this world? My answer each time has been darker than I’d care to speak here and now in words—but in these late years of my life I know it is the deepest question we can ask of our lives.

A few years after that course, Jim’s dedication to bringing good into the lives of everyone he touched was recognized when he was named a vice president of the university and special assistant to the president. But Jim was not to get many more years to do good. In 1990, at the age of 63, he died of cancer. Remembering his funeral mass, at which nearly a thousand mourners were present on only a few days’ notice, the closing words of Eliot’s Middlemarch come back to me: “But the effect of [his] being on those around [him] was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

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Mel Livatino
Born in 1940, Mel Livatino grew up on the northwest side of Chicago. For lack of money, he worked in a printing plant from 1958, when he graduated from high school, till 1966, when he graduated from the University of Illinois. He took his M. A. in English at Loyola University in Chicago, and thereafter taught for 36 years in the City Colleges of Chicago. During the last 19 years his essays have been published multiple times in the following magazines: Under the Sun (14), The Sewanee Review (9), Notre Dame Magazine (8), Writing on the Edge (4), Portland Magazine (1), and River Teeth (1). Twelve of these essays were named Notable Essays of the Year by Robert Atwan’s Best American Essays annual (2005, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2020, 2022). "Wintry Rooms of Love" (Notre Dame Magazine, 2012) was given the 2013 Case Circle of Excellence Gold Award for Best Articles of the Year. "Crossing Borders" (Notre Dame Magazine, 2012) was given the 2013 Case Circle of Excellence Silver Award for Best Articles of the Year. Mel has recorded more than 50 of his essays for Recorded Recreational Reading for the Blind in Sun City, AZ. He is currently seeking book publishers for several collections of essays: Long Cry of Goodbye (about the loss of his wife to Alzheimer’s and then to death), Going Home Again (about all the ways we are always going home without knowing we are doing so), and A Girl in Summer (another collection of essays about going home again).


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