[The evaluation of Mr. Bixby as a teacher for Mark Twain will certainly vary if he is to be judged by modern-day measurements or the standards of Twain's time. This response will present Bixby in the context of his time as a pilot on the Mississippi River and as a teacher for Twain. All other judgments will have to be made by the student.]
At the end of Chapter VIII, Mr. Bixby, an experienced and respected riverboat pilot, says that when he sets out to teach someone to be a ship's pilot, he will "learn him or kill him." While this sounds rather radical, the gruff man means that he will never give up until someone learns.
When the pilot begins with Twain, he starts in an abrupt manner in order to prove that steering the boat may not be as easy as his apprentice believes it, "Here, take her; shave those steamships as close as you'd peel an apple." Of course, Twain thinks that it is dangerous to go so closely to other ships and steers away. "Within ten seconds, I was set aside in disgrace" and Mr. Bixby pulls the steamboat near the shore again and "flaying" his pupil with "abuse of my cowardice." It is only later that Bixby explains why they must stay so close to shore. This is a lesson Twain does not forget.
Later, Mr. Bixby simply remarks, "There's Six Mile Point," then the other points. All these points are about level with the water's edge and look alike to Twain, who does not recognize any significance to them. Again, it is not until later on that Mr. Bixby asks Twain about them and explains why he should have remembered them.
Then, Twain is awakened one night without explanation and made to come to the pilot's house and watch the pilot steer in the night. When Mr. Bixby asks the youth what is the name of the first point above New Orleans, the muddled youth must answer that he does not know.
"Don't know?...Well, you're a smart one," said Mr. Bixby. 'What's the name of the next point?'
Again, the youth does not recall because he had not considered those points important when they were first mentioned. Mr. Bixby scolds him,
"Look here! What do you suppose I told you the names of those points for?"
Because "the devil of temptation provokes" him, the youth replies, "Well--to--be--entertaining, I thought."
This flippant answer causes Mr. Bixby to become enraged; however, he soon says in "the gentlest way,"
"My boy, you must get a little memorandum book, and every time I tell you a thing, put it down right away."
- Observation and Experience
Later, Mr. Bixby is hired to pilot a much more attractive steamboat. However, as they now are going downstream, the young Twain realizes that he again is "lost." Yet, he is amid visiting pilots from whom he learns much.
All visiting pilots were useful, for they were always ready and willing, winter or summer, night or day, to go out in the yawl and help buoy the channel or assist the boat's pilots in any way they could.
From listening, Twain realizes that he must memorize towns and islands, snags, "obscure wood piles--and know them in the dark!" He also learns that three bell rings signal land, and he records in his memorandum book many "confusing names."
One very dark night as many of the visiting pilots crowd into the pilot-house, they observe as Bixby navigates with skill, even going over a sand bar without getting stuck or damaging the boat. The observing youth hears one of them declares, "Mr. Bixby is a lightning pilot!" The youth becomes aware of what a skilled pilot his teach really is.
The student of Bixby "packs" his head full of the names of islands, towns, bars, "points" and bends. But, lest he become too complacent with his acquisition of knowledge, Mr. Bixby thinks of a new way to humble him. For, when the youth does not know an answer, the "gunpowdery chief went off with a bang...loading and firing until he was out of adjectives." However, the youth now understands that Mr. Bixby's firepower only lasts so long; then, he becomes "placable and even remorseful" as he instructs his pupil,
"You have got to know the shape of the river perfectly. It is all there is left to steer by--it hasn't the same shape in the night."
When the youth asks him how he can discern where to go when there is a moon, or it is foggy, or it is pitch dark, Bixby wisely counsels, "Steer by the shape that's in your head and never mind the one that's before your eyes." And, now Twain knows this is what he did the night he went so skillfully over the sandbar.
Still, Mr. Bixby is relentless with his exercises in humility. For, when the youth tells him that he stayed with Mr. W---- that night that Bixby said nothing to the man when he took over the wheel, Bixby remarks, "You do seem to be more different kinds of an ass than any creature I ever saw before." Twain humbly notes that as soon as his "self-complacency moved to the front once more, Mr. Bixby was all fixed and read to start it to the rear again."
Certainly, Twain respects his teacher, who knows that one must never become complacent; for, the Mississippi River is a river with a powerful current and many twists and turns, sandbars, and other traps. It is a river that must be respected, learned and relearned. This is a lesson that Mr. Bixby has taught his pupil through example, experience, and discipline. He has scolded Twain many times because being a pilot is a serious responsibility because there are no second chances and many lives can be lost if a ship wrecks, not to mention the cost to the boat's owner(s).