Teacher, Teacher

September 20, 2011

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.”

When Less Is Enough

September 14, 2011

I took a break yesterday morning from formatting my new collection of novellas and went to the press opening of the De Kooning Retrospective at MOMA. I enjoy going to exhibitions on my own, but I also enjoy going with an artist. Though our experience of the work is always different, I learn a lot about the work itself, and the visual artist’s process. Artists are often quite verbal—they keep notebooks and sketchbooks and they read a lot—and have a poetic way of talking about their work. My cousin, Peggy Weis, an accomplished print maker, is always a joy to be with at an exhibition for this very reason. When we arrived at the room of De Kooning’s late work, she gasped and said, “Look at what happened to him. These huge canvases of sweeping brush strokes. He’s no longer painting bodies, he is using his own body to express himself.” Then a young woman arrived to tell us that it was time for the Director of the Museum and the Curators to speak. We decided to skip it and walked back through the exhibition. This seemed to be okay; no one stopped us. What a treat to have the galleries nearly to ourselves. We took our time. I was hypnotized by De Kooning's skill as a draftsman and also the way he worked the canvas month after month, adding layer upon layer of paint. I thought of my own struggle to layer work, to build texture, to stay with it in revision. And I’m pleased that I finished the last novella of my current collection because I’ve had a disrupted summer. I decided the story did not have to be as long as the others, that less was enough, that I could work—with humility—on a smaller canvas and restrain my ambition to create a master work.

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