Chattanooga Conference/Sam Pickering

        I dedicate this post to all my teacher friends.  My mama was an English teacher.  So was my mother-in-law.  My old Chemistry teacher saved my academic life.  When I met him, I was only interested in guitars, girls, and pizzas, and he set me on fire to learn.  I’d never been a Doc without him.

          I’ve always had a weak spot for teachers.  From what I can tell, they deal with an enormous amount of foolishness for the privilege to guide one student out of the desert.  I don’t understand all they have to do, but I respect it.  I guess it is why folks like the English Professor and mrschili became blog pals right from the get-go. 

         In spite of a mischievous youth, all my old teachers have forgiven me, and now all of them are my patients.  I try hard to take good care of everyone, but I have to admit they are extra special.  

        By day two of the Chattanooga Southern Writer’s Conference, I had begun to learn the ropes.  I played my mandolin outside but then put it away for the conference.  A group of famous writers stood at the front door of the Tyvoli.

       “Are you a writer?”  one asked.

        “I trying but I’m still a hack.  I’m really a Doctor.”

         “What kind of Doctor?”

         “Country Doctor.  You know, one of those in the trenches blue collar working class Docs.”

        “Well, I trust you are not a hack doctor.”  He started to smile, and wiped it away with the back of his hand. 

        “Oh, no sir.  I’m an O.K. Doc, but I still pray hard about that gig.  I have all kind of respect for what can go wrong.”

        “What you carrying?”  another asked.

       “Mandolin.  Do you play?”


       “If you get in a jam give me a call.  I love to play.”  I handed him a card.

        I tossed my mandolin case over my shoulder, and walked over to Ms. Dorothy’s station. 

        “Hey Ms. Dorothy, I cut off my cell phone.”

        “Ssh.”  She placed one finger over her lips.  “Come here.”  She motioned for me to stop.

        “What is it?”

        “Do you recognize that man over there?”

        I looked at my program.  “Heck, that’s Sam Pickering.”

        “Well, aren’t you gonna speak to him?”

         “Gee, I don’t know.  He’s famous isn’t he?”

         “He’s a nice man.  Go get him to sign that book you bought.”

         “O.K.  Thanks.”
        “And don’t be too loud.  He’s taught English for years at University of Connecticut.  I just adore him.”

         Poor Sam.  I could empathize.  As a Doc, I have all kinda women chasing me.  They all want to know if I am taking new Medicare patients.   Sam’s groupies were middle aged Doctors and Aunt Bee types.   At least we had something in common.  

        “Dr. Pickering, would would sign my book?”

        “Sure.  Are you enjoying the conference?”

         “Yes sir.  I told ’em outside I was a hack, but I am having fun, and I’m learning.”

          He signed my copy.  “Keep on writing.  Don’t worry.  We’re all hacks.”

         “Maybe so, sir.  I’ve got a notion I am a whole lot more of one than you are, but bless you.”

        Pickering is an intellectual man.  After nineteen books, my guess is he has seen it all twice; made money and been ripped off, taught English and spun yarns, been famous and could care less if he’s discovered or not. 

           Even so, he took several minutes to hear of my dreams and write some good luck wishes for me inside the cover of his book.  It took me a while to figure out exactly what it was about the man I connected with, as our backgrounds are quite different.  

         After I read his book I understood.  My hope is my doctor story is as honest as his book ‘Letters to a Teacher.’  It is a straight-up account of what it is like to try be a teacher and a decent human being.  (And both at the same time)  

           Dr. Pickering treated his students with dignity and respect.  He was honest enough to admit when he was a young single teacher the girl in the front row was a knockout, but wise enough to ignore his emotions.   He told of the time he gave a smart-ass but true answer to a dumb question that cost him a job opportunity as a college President.   The guy has written a shelf of books and University Press essays, but he seems unimpressed with himself; the kind of fellow who’d rather mulch his leaves than pontificate about grammar rules.

         He reminded me of Dr. Danny Fulks.  Dr. Fulks dropped all the pretenses and formalities long ago and made his best effort to communicate with and teach young people.  Sam Pickering seems to have done the same.

          He’s a hard cat to find.  As far as I can tell he doesn’t have a web site or a FaceBook page.  A trip to MySpace only netted me a grunge rocker named Sam Pickering who had 17 friends.

        On the cover of his book is a quote from ‘Publishers Weekly.’  “Pickering’s odd timelessness- his ideas seem simultaneously old-fashioned and up to date….”   I can only hope they might say something like that about old Doc Bibey some day.  I expect Dr. Pickering would say not to hold your breath.  Often you are dead before anyone pays much attention to you.  That’s O.K.  I can deal with honest.

       Before I went in for the day, I went back to speak to Dorothy.

       “Psst.  Ms. Dorothy.  I appreciate the tip.  Yeah, he was real.  Me ‘n Marfar are going out to Signal Mountain tonight to play.  You want to come?”

        “Oh my.  Dr. Bibey.  I am most flattered, but no, I have another obligation.”  She leaned over and whispered.  “Dr. Pickering is giving a private reading at the Library tonight and I must attend.” 

         “Yes, m’am. Y’all have fun.”

          I took up guitar years ago in hopes of meeting girls.  That worked out good with Ms. Marfar, and I’m long since spoken for, but Ms. Dorothy confirmed what I have long suspected.  It ain’t the guitar pickers but the writers who get all the girls. 

        Hmm.  Maybe Dr. Pickering could use it as a motivational tool with his young male students.  At that age they all suffer from testosterone poisoning and it might be the only thing that gets their attention.

Dr. B

“Letters to a Teacher”  Author:  Dr. Sam Pickering

ISBN 0-8021-4227-3

Grove Press, New York

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12 Comments on “Chattanooga Conference/Sam Pickering”

  1. Karen Says:

    There are some people who are born teachers and others who choose it as a career. I spent 7 years in the classroom and loved it – and I would like to think I was fairly good at it too – but I take my hat off to those teachers who dedicated 40+ years to the profession. Even after my relatively short stint pre-children, I am still absolutely chuffed when I hear about one of ‘my kids’. I’m now friends with several of them on Facebook and they do we the honour of letting me take a peek at their now adult lives. They will always be awkward, pre-adolescent, learning-to-fly, 5th and 6th graders to me, no matter how old they get.

    And now they realise I’m actually not that much older than them. I remember one day in my early 20s there was a substitute teacher in the room next door. I hadn’t spied the teacher yet and I was trying to work out who it was that had come in at the last minute to help us out. I asked the kids some leading questions – Is it a man or a lady? Have they been here before? How old are they? They were rather vague, but finally someone piped up and said they thought they were about the same age as me. It was with shock that I met the teacher at lunch time only to discover they were well into their 50s and I was in my early 20s!! Now they are in their early 20s, early 30s doesn’t seem so old…

  2. drtombibey Says:

    Ms. Karen,

    That age thing is relative huh?

    I recall years ago when I confided to my best friend my Dad had just turned 40. As kids, we were certain he couldn’t possibly make it another year. He’s still going strong.

    Dr. B

  3. Mrs. Chili Says:

    Karen’s right. For me, teaching is a calling; even when I’m not actively employed in a classroom, I still self-identify as a teacher, I still think like a teacher, I still figure out how I would present this or that experience to a group of students. I fear I’m not fit for anything else.

    Doc, Dr. Pickering wasn’t lying; we ARE all hacks. Every time any of us sits to write, it’s always a new experience. Don’t think that money or name recognition or publishing experience changes that; when you’re a famous writer (and I get the feeling you will be), you’ll still feel like an impostor at the keyboard now and then. That doesn’t mean you ARE an impostor, but that doesn’t negate the feelings. That’s just how it is. I’ve learned to live around it.

  4. drtombibey Says:


    I expect you are a teacher like I am a Doc. It isn’t just what you do, it is what you are.

    I don’t reckon I’ll ever be a rich or famous author, and that does not worry me. What matters to me is for my teachers (and you are my on-line English teacher) to think I am an O.K. writer. That is all the validation I need.

    Dr. B

  5. Billy Says:

    Are you telling us that you actually met the Pickering that wrote the book that was the basis of “Dead Poet Society” with Robin Williams? That cannot be the same man.

  6. drtombibey Says:

    Honest to goodness, Billy. Shook his hand and everything. He was just like me or you except his speech was better; not too many ain’ts from a man like that.

    The Chattanooga Conference was a gold mine for anyone who wants to learn to write.

    It was indeed the same guy. One of his students wrote the screenplay and credited Dr. Pickering as the teacher who inspired it.

    Dr. B

  7. danny fulks Says:

    Jean Piaget, the late Swiss child psychologist proved children learn best in the real world of frogs, water, sand, objects, love, humor, play, and practice: A bumper sticker of his philosophy: THE ONLY THING YOU CAN TEACH SOMEONE IS SOMETHING THEY ALREADY KNOW. Jerome Bruner: The child is a scientist, he or she does science with guidance. Chidren don’t learn by watching someone else do something, by reading about it, by listening to a lecture. Imagine a society that turned Kindergarten classrooms into a fantasy land. Children sit on wooden animals like the merry-go-around; animals equipped with computers, crayons, clay; walls decorated by their own art from a variety of media; lunches and snacks served family style; a place to sleep and dream, listen to music; hundreds of shapes and sizes of blocks; Warm, friendly, competent teachers sitting at the childrens’ level; samll groups working together on cooperative projects. We don’t have these because we really don’t commit to children; we are enthralled at authoritarianism, still live the dark ages when chilren were thought to be little adults that had to have behavior and knowledge shoved into their heads, to be seen and not heard. Why are college freshmen loathe to get up in front of the class and talk? Because they have never done it before. Good schools cost a lot money, too.

  8. drtombibey Says:

    Dr. Fulks,

    It has been a while since I read Piaget, but I like his ideas. My wife was a Psych major so we had a lot of his books around.

    I played guitar and banjo, but took up mandolin at 32 because we couldn’t find a player. My daughter said I made it ’cause I had no shame. I was just an overgrown kid who loved bluegrass and a chance to play. The fact I was bad made no difference to me.

    I grew into decent player. Of course with Darin Aldridge on my right hand and Wayne Benson on my left, I’d have no excuse if I hadn’t. What an opportunity! But I had just as much fun when I was incompetent.

    I think the only shame is not grow and try. If we make kids feel ashamed because they aren’t experts right away most will give up.

    Someday I ever get my book out there, I’d love to come play a gig with you for a class. Part of my message is we all got to take care of each other. I believe that is exactly how you teach your students, and it would be an honor to help you one day.

    Dr. B

  9. Karen Says:

    Dr B., I just had to comment again – I was so inspired by Dr Fulks’ description of what a classroom could be like! When I was doing my Masters in Education (which I’ve since deferred – I had to choose between studying and writing – I chose writing for now) I studied different models of schooling from different theoretical perspectives. I’d say the entire westernized system is pretty much a dud. And then I saw an amazing talk on TED – not sure if you’re familiar with it, but I’ll see if I can find the link. They have the brightest and best in every field imaginable presenting their ideas and are all about being revolutionary. This English guy, Sir Ken Robinson talks about how schools kill creativity. I couldn’t agree more! And now my boys are heading towards starting school I’m more than a little worried about what they will experience. I wish there was some other alternative… – this link should take you right to the talk if you’re interested.

    There is a school here in Australia that really appeals to me. It’s been started by Australian author, John Marsden and works on an entirely different philosophy. They are doing amazing stuff with kids. if you want to check it out. It’s about 2000km away from where we live but it’s almost enough to make me want to get up and move! What an idyllic place for my boys to learn.

  10. drtombibey Says:

    Ms. Karen,

    Dr. Fulks is a cool guy, huh? Maybe the bluegrass kinda folks will take over the world!

    I have heard of TED. In fact, my agent sent me a link on this recently. I will check it out.

    Someday I am gonna get to Australia, and I am gonna visit with kids as you speak of. I know one thing. This old Doc was an ADD type kid with a bunch of imagination, and I feel so lucky to have made it.

    Dr. B

  11. Billy Says:

    Karen is right .
    Amazing 20 minute lectures by some of the worlds best intellects.
    Truly food for thought.

  12. drtombibey Says:


    Now I’ve heard it three times. As Jerry Clower says it must be scripture. I’ll check it out.

    Dr. B

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