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John Ronsheim woke me up. I was 18, straight from the nice-nice Midwest where everyone was contained and restrained and measured their words before speaking. Come to think of it, so was John... though you could hardly tell from his extravagant way of being.
What exactly was so shocking about John? He seemed absolutely fearless. He sixty-something but behaved like no other sixty-year-old I ever knew. Those people were old. John was a peer. He had so many qualities that disappear as one gets older... attitude, energy, spark, charisma, in-your-face-ness, In short, he was a young person. He was rock-n-roll! Maybe if he heard me say that, he'd do a spit take and start yelling in outrage... which would kind of prove my point, now wouldn't it?
I never, ever had a teacher like him. In theater they say "show, don't tell" -- and John's style of teaching was just that. His classes were experiences. They were voyages. He'd put on one of those humongous reel-to-reel tapes of the music he wanted us to experience, and it didn't matter who the composer was -- Bach, Beethoven or Monk -- and he'd be off and running. Literally. Completely off the wall, and running from one end of the classroom to the other, shouting, grimacing, comb-over flapping in the breeze caused by his movement, arms windmilling, eyes bugging, then squeezing shut in a silent scream.... face sweating... jacket comes off, shirt sleeves roll up... Repeat.
John was the person opened the door to understanding music that was not pop or rock-n-roll. I'd spent my childhood playing classical piano, but it bored me. I was a child of pop and rock. I never really got this other music because I simply couldn't hear it. I couldn't hear the story, I couldn't hear the drama, I couldn't hear the life. It was a mechanical exercise to me, as John's wife Eileen pointed out to me in one of my piano lessons. Playing the right notes doesn't mean you're making music. You first have to be able to hear the music, live the music. I needed someone to show me.
John put on these tapes in his classes and nakedly lived the music as it played. It was shocking. It was embarrassing! The music passed through him, breathed it, he suffered it, he reveled in it, he agonized in it... moment to moment, laid bare in front of 15, 20, 40 or more awkward, tormented, angry, curious, and terrified 18-22-year olds. First we were voyeurs, then we saw, we heard, we felt. We knew. This was no 60-year-old guy. This was no professor. This was one of us. This was what we prayed we would be. Not just when we were old and 60, but today, goddammit!
One day, during one of his performances, I couldn't resist: I had to sketch him. I don't really know how to draw so I had to wait for him to get tired and slow down so I could draw him somewhat successfully. I like the haggard expression on his face. He'd look like that after interpreting a great, passionate sweep of sound. All of life contained in that moment: the euphoria, and then the let-down. The sheer exhaustion which comes as the price of living.
Show, don't tell.
John, thank you so much. You were a teacher of the art of living!
Trying to Trick John
In the Fall of ’93 I went to visit Dani Follett who was in Oxford, England on a Sarah Lawrence year-abroad program. Dani had been an Antioch student, but transferred to Sarah Lawrence after John Ronsheim retired. I stayed for a month going to classes, meeting Dani’s acquaintances and generally getting to know the place. This was my first mass encounter with a European Upper Class and I was naively surprised to find that this elite group seemed to be dominated by small, mopey, hunched-up people with very independently-minded teeth. Yale may be very perverse just below the surface, but it seems like the US “elite” has an easier time, or puts more effort into, keeping that surface shiny.
While there, I practiced with Oxford’s competitive blind wine tasting team, went out on the town in drag--on the night of the “gay bop”--with one of the braver students I met, and, one afternoon, accidentally interrupted an “interesting” scene between a young female student and her old professor in his office.
When I got back to the US, I passed through Yellow Springs and visited John and Eileen. John was very curious about what I thought about Oxford. What was going on? What was the place was about? (Or likely: “What was its essence?”) I said what I thought: compared to the intense education I’d gotten at Antioch, Oxford was pretty pathetic. The students were snobby. They completely lacked academic breadth (Oxford undergrads are forced to specialize in a way similar to our Grad students). I didn’t meet a single creative thinker. Even within their specializations, the students really seemed to be lacking. The lectures were factual, but dead as a doornail.
John positively attacked me. “Do you know how many incredible things have been produced by that University!? Do you know the history of it?! Do you know the incredible minds it produces?! Do know the importance of that place to the history of western civilization!?”
The implication was basically that I lacked the ability and intensity to sniff out or be sniffed out by the profound core groups which, quietly hidden away from the superficial observer, are continuing Oxford’s uncompromised, radical quest for knowledge and the betterment of the human condition. That did not feel good.
A few weeks later, David Ramm (‘91) made the exact same trip I did. At Oxford with Dani, checking the place out. When he came back we swapped stories, and I told him of my berating. Soon it was his turn to be grilled by John.
Asked how he found Oxford, David reported that the students were interesting and very educated. Often creative. The lectures were stimulating. In general, a vital, admirable place.
John was surprised by David’s response, shot him though with intuition beams trying to figure out what was going on, then just shouted angrily “OF COURSE, THEY’RE ALL SUPERFICIAL AS HELL!!!!”
I don’t exactly know why, but certainly for the only time to John, and for one of the few times in his life—David lied. Maybe he was doing a test. In any case, he said the exact opposite of what he'd experienced in England.
What I love about this story is that John was not being rhetorical with either of us. One great aspect of John’s teaching “method” was: a student cannot rest comfortably on any conclusions no matter how “true,” because one's ideas on a subject, being “just” ideas, are not the whole dynamic thing. John was always fishing for how what you think is NOT the whole. And then shouting (sometimes) what was missing from what you had said back at you, on its behalf.