“Can I get to that heart? Can I get to that mind?”A tribute to the frank, contested humor of intense teachers—and to Henry Higgins

Nine years ago in my first class in graduate school, a course on approaches to teaching writing, we read George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion as a break from composition theory. I was thrilled, but I reigned in my enthusiasm when I noted that others in the class, including my professor who I respected immensely, felt apologetic about the book. Words like abusive and misogynistic were thrown casually around the seminar table, as they sometimes are in graduate seminars. Why was there this worry about the teacher in the story—about Henry Higgins? I was surprised that so many disliked his method because I had always thought of him as an effective teacher. My only real support for this inkling was that I found him . . . funny.

Did I have this wrong and, if so, what was the source of my misunderstanding? Or, if I was right that Henry Higgins was a funny and therefore benevolent man (I had collapsed the two conditions in my mind), what caused the confusion among others in my graduate school class? Why had everyone else failed to note his humor? And what did I see in his humor anyway? Could it be that I thought his humor lightened—or even completely neutralized—his seemingly harsh dealings with Eliza Doolittle? Or did we all have it wrong? Did a “correct” reading of the play really fall somewhere in the middle—was it really that Higgins was both funny and harsh? I began to doubt my first intuition about professor Higgins, as I seemed to be faced with a more complicated story.

The irony was that my own professor in this class, a good man with a fiery heart, who was, that very semester, dying of cancer (this would be his last seminar on teaching writing), was a gruff man himself. He and Henry Higgins shared a vocational intensity. In fact, like Henry Higgins, this professor had made it his life’s work to teach writing (or “speech”) to the underserved, hugely advancing the trend in what is now called “access” education at top universities. He was passionately focused on this until his last breaths—and he was passionately focused on us, his students; he read our final papers days before he died. Although we, his students, didn’t have a personal rapport with him—we would never have imagined going out for a beer with this man—our engagement with theories of speech and writing, particularly where low-income populations were concerned, kept him alert, stubborn, and justifiably cranky until the end.

Henry Higgins, of course, is accused of harboring a similar passion. During the climactic charade in Act III, when Eliza passes for royalty, Higgins’s former phonetics student asks him where he thinks the mysterious Eliza Doolittle comes from. Higgins speaks the truth and claims she is from Covent Garden. His former pupil rejoins, “The London gutter is the whole world for you.”  Despite the rudeness of the interchange, I had always been impressed by Higgins’s “same to everyone” social philosophy yet special fascination with the rhetorical frankness of the lower class, exhibited in his willingness to take on Eliza (to take her into his home after knowing her for less than an hour) and his delight in her father, Mr. Doolittle.

I had always felt that Higgins, in his unromantic way, was the first person to recognize something in Eliza’s voice, to tell her that she had a soul, and to really make her work. It impressed me that he so fully believed she could be a duchess if she wanted to be one but that he didn’t particularly care either way.

I had always thought that this was what intense, passionate teachers are supposed to do: recognize something in our voices, good or bad, that we cannot hear ourselves; affirm to us, through their intensity, passion, and self-sacrificing eccentricity that we and they—that all human beings—have souls; and make us work harder than we have ever known we could. I had always thought it was the job of good teachers to show us, in the most matter of fact way, that we can become anything. I felt that Higgins’s unsentimental edge was key to his art. He could only do this teaching fully and with total commitment if he didn’t care how it reflected on him—or whether or not things were personally harmonious between teacher and pupil.

After this graduate seminar, the play stayed in my mind. Two years later I was adjuncting at an all women’s college that predominantly serves low-income women from disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. I assigned the play. My students loved Eliza. Some hated Higgins; some adored him; no one felt indifferent about him. There was that divide again. These were the students my own graduate professor had been thinking about in his final thoughts, and they were now studying Eliza themselves.

Four years later I was teaching the play again in an ethics class at the same university. I had full-time work there now with an office along a narrow corridor. Professors from a variety of departments had offices along the same, narrow corridor, and I found myself directly across the hall from an outgoing math instructor. Our office doors were always open, and I could easily overhear conversations between this math instructor and his many student visitors. At first I tried to ignore the exchanges, since they were none of my business, and anyway I was focused on my own student conferences and teaching preparations. But sometimes I would catch the occasional comment or response, and I found myself writing them down.

“How are you, Sheridan!” (“Sheridan” is what the students call him.)

“I’m fine, but you’re not.”

“Why not?”

“Well, you can’t add.”

It was Sheridan’s frankness that impressed me. And it made me laugh. Meanwhile, Henry Higgins was again a topic among my own students in this ethics course. I wanted to know if they thought Higgins was cruel to Eliza. As a comparative example, I showed my students the Tina Turner What’s Love Got to Do With It on the heels of watching Gabriel Pascal’s film version of Pygmalion.


Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard in Gabriel Pascal’s Pygmalion (1938) acertaincinema.com

Lawrence Fishburne’s Ike Turner is physically abusive to his prodigy, Tina. But Leslie Howard’s Henry Higgins is . . . funny. The students liked Howard; he made them laugh. In fact, this new group of students was far less inclined than my class years before to find Higgins hate-able. Some were now frustrated with Eliza. These were juniors and seniors, as opposed to freshmen, so perhaps their perspectives were different.

Meanwhile, I was observing less dramatic versions of these scenes right across the hall from my office, and I began to wonder about certain similarities between this tireless math professor and Henry Higgins. Sheridan and I spoke often, but whenever we chatted, our topic of conversation was almost exclusively the students—just as Higgins and his consort Pickering only want to talk about their work with Eliza whenever they leave the house. So, too, the students seek Sheridan out, just as Eliza seeks out Higgins, and his door is always open to them. Outside his office is a large purple sign that says “The Crying Bench,” and beneath the sign there is such a bench!  Well, I should say there was such a bench. A colleague felt the bench was offensive and complained to the administration, and so Sheridan removed the bench that had always made his students, many of whom did come to his office crying—or leave crying—laugh.

What traits did I feel Sheridan and Higgins had in common? Their subjects were clearly different. Higgins is a confirmed bachelor, whereas Sheridan is a devoted husband and father. Their similarity stems more from their manner of speaking with students—from both the intensity of and devotion to their work, and yet their relative lack of sentimentality about that work. I also noted how both seemed to be misunderstood—or at least how I saw something in them that others did not see.

Sheridan is vocally appreciated by his students and by most colleagues, but I note sometimes a gentle eye roll among colleagues during meetings when they hear him speak about his students. Like Higgins, he comes on strong—but like Higgins he also does not romanticize his work.

Here is a story. Sheridan and I were both concerned about a student we shared one semester. This student, a bright and enthusiastic presence in both our classes, was also frequently absent from those classes. At this university, we often serve as advisers to students battling severe financial constraints, chaotic or problematic issues with family, scheduling conflicts do to lack of childcare, multiple jobs, and other concerns that make attending school more of challenge than it might be for the average college student. This student was suffering from depression; she had not completed her courses the previous semester, and this was her last chance before the school dismissed her. We both encouraged her and tried to support her, but one day she was gone and never returned to our classes or the university. Sheridan was surprisingly sanguine. “She’s out there somewhere,” he shrugged warmly. “Could be drugs, could be a mental health thing. She might resurface, and she might not.”

Sheridan cares for his students immensely. In fact, many are shocked by what he’ll do or say—like Higgins—to push his students toward something fuller, more hopeful, and more disciplined. Yet, also like Higgins, he has a broad view of their success; he doesn’t sentimentalize it. If they complete the learning fully and wholeheartedly, well, that’s up to them. He’ll pester them incessantly to reach that goal, but attaining that goal is their prerogative. Neither Sheridan nor Higgins seems to judge the student for what she attains—good or bad. They are both proud of their work, but there is no judgment mixed in that pride.

I arrived at this mental comparison really because of laughter. I found myself laughing pleasantly at the exchanges between this teacher on my hall and the exchanges between the imaginary Henry Higgins and his transforming student, Eliza Doolittle. Eliza accuses Higgins of unkindness and coldness, but I never felt she meant it.

I decided to test my forgiving impressions of Higgins’s character using a method from the ethics course I was teaching. A guest lecturer had told us you can verify abuse if coercion is present. Higgins never crosses any physical lines with Eliza—Shaw makes a point of clarifying this. Apart from placating her with chocolates, Higgins never tries to force her to stay or leave—and it is precisely this “cold indifference” that Eliza finds cruel. And yet, he is right. The learning cannot be forced; the initiative must come and does come from her. But the learning is very difficult. It changes Eliza—completely.

There is a kind of un-harming violence in all real learning. Yet Higgins is not the source of that violence, I am now convinced. He may be unrestrained in the shocking or even rude nature of his commentary, but there is a sense in which he must be shocking in order to be effective with his students. He may not be a very pleasant friend, but he is a true teacher. If we allow ourselves to laugh at his gruff eccentricities, then we see the broadness of his position. This sort of person, a Higgins or a Sheridan, really believes in the flexibility of status and ability. He doesn’t campaign for it or theorize about it, he knows it’s true, and he feels unsentimental about that truth. He is like a Shakespearean fool, jabbing and pestering and doting and helping his chosen interlocutors—all at once. His humor reveals a coarse-seeming kindness.

Of course, Eliza Doolittle does not laugh at Higgins’s tough-loving quips. She weeps. Yet, like Sheridan’s students, she is sent to “The Crying Bench,” and she has never felt more welcome or more dignified anywhere.

Just the other day I overheard Sheridan barking at some students who were waiting for the elevator. “You’d rather wait for the elevator than take the stairs? You’re what—21? 22? Take the stairs!” Who gets away with saying these things to students? Someone who adores them, not affectionately, but with the certainty that they are human beings with souls—and someone who knows the importance of that certainty. This essential devotion lightens the gruffness, and we sometimes, with certain lenses on, laugh.

(c) Nelly Lambert, 2014

2 responses

  1. I found this a really interesting read :) mainly because I actually agree with you regarding Higgins. When we were reading Pygmlion in school I had a really great English teacher and she taught us that Higgins had a humour; he was harsh on Eliza, but only because that was the type of guy he was – direct, straightforward, no frills. His method worked, she learned to be a lady. But I always thought that, as much as he criticized and he was rude and abrupt, you could tell from the fact that he persevered with her, essentially a gutter rat with a pretty face, that he really cared about her and wanted her to improve her life. And I thought the way he went about it was comical. He was quirky :) lovely insight into the character :)

  2. […] Lambert, Eleanore. ““Can I Get to That Heart? Can I Get to That Mind?”A Tribute to the Fra… […]

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