I was walking on 110th Street last Friday on my way to the Hungarian Pastry Shop to read a tutorial student’s manuscript over an ice coffee and poppy seed strudel, and looking forward to that strudel, when a voice behind me—“teacher, teacher”—interrupted my guilty reverie. How could I not turn around? A young, buff man, carrying a small backpack in his hands, said, “Don’t you work for NYU? Aren’t you a teacher? Do you remember me?”
“Yes, yes, no, please remind me,” I said.
I have been teaching writing at NYU since 1997, and at Gotham Writer’s Workshop before that. I’ve had a lot of students and, when I bump into them, I always remember they have been my student, and I usually remember what they were writing about. Though a name might have slipped, that comes back to me eventually, also. But this young man, I couldn’t place him. So, I stood quietly and let him talk. He was shy and stood some distance away, not a normal distance for a conversation between people who know one another. And, for an instant, I thought he had seen my briefcase and thus assumed I was a professor--we were near Columbia after all-- and, in fact, he didn’t know me, he was a con man, and I’d better be on my way. But how on earth would a stranger know I worked at NYU?
All these thoughts were racing around in my head while I was trying to figure out when this young man took my class or, if he didn’t take my class, how I was going to get away.
“I was the security guard at MAVA,” he said. “Bentley. Remember?”
MAVA is Manhattan Village Academy, a charter school that NYU uses as a satellite location. They subcontract to a security firm and Bentley worked for them. He was a friendly security guard and I always chatted to him as I entered and left the building. I didn’t get to know him well, but apparently our conversations had made an impression because, he now told me, he had been longing to be upstairs in a classroom. Then and now, his earnestness touched me because, I believe, the desire to learn, the ability to learn, is hard-wired in us and it is only the privileged, these days, who can continue their education. I am far from sentimental, but when I watch movies about young people and their teachers, or documentaries about schools being built in impoverished countries, young children bent over their scrappy books or slates, I want to get out there and start teaching. I stood there and thought to myself: This young man is talking to me because I am a teacher. I must encourage him.
“I’m a bus driver now,” he continued, “and the MTA offers to pay for courses at CUNY. I want to take classes but am worried about how I will manage my time.”
“I am sure you will manage,” I said. “That is a wonderful opportunity. I am so pleased you have such a good job now with such a wonderful benefit. You can do it slowly, one class at a time.”
“I’ve always been a good student. I read the MTA manual in one sitting. I know I have to go beyond my high school diploma," he said.
“You will get there,” I said. “I took my time getting my Master’s Degree. I needed it to be able to teach at NYU. I am so glad we stopped to talk, Bentley. I know you will do well.”