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The Student & The Harpist

You shouldn’t be surprised, dear reader, that I am writing about students at the beginning of the semester. I love to teach, as well as to write, and I love my students—their enthusiasm, their curiosity, their effort. Young, middle-aged, or elderly, experienced writers or newborns, they arrive in my workshop starstruck and hopeful.

And, so, in the waning days of summer, as I sit at my computer, prepare my syllabi and amend my reading lists, I contemplate two recent encounters that reaffirm my dedication to teaching. The first was on the “A” train, a source of many stories. It’s a microcosm of the city, a gathering of the city’s diverse population.

The Mexican guitarists had disappeared and the trains had been quiet for a while. Perhaps the hiatus prepared us for the arrival of Benjamin, The Harpist. Dressed as a mariachi player, he carried a miniature harp and played “Besame Mucho,” translation: “Kiss Me A Lot.” It was written in 1940 by Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velázquez, and is one of the most famous boleros ever recorded. I began to hum. Others took off their headphones, or stopped reading. When it was over, everyone burst into applause. Benjamin is a talented musician.

The train pulled into 59th street, which was also my stop that day. But that wasn’t the end of the story. A young man followed The Harpist out of the train. I stood and watched as they began to talk. Suddenly, the harp had been passed along and the young man was plucking at the strings, his ear close to the top of the harp to feel its resonance. I was touched by Benjamin’s kindness, his easy, generous mentoring, and couldn’t resist a flash interview. I took out my notebook and asked a few questions. The young man, Daniel Mahfooz, is a music student at LaGuardia High School of Art and the Performing Arts, my daughter’s alma mater. His family are originally from Egypt. I asked if he’d heard of Naguib Mahfouz, a famous Egyptian writer, but his answer was lost in the cacophony of incoming trains. And he was mostly interested in the harp anyway.

Then later that week, I met a young woman I will call Flo, as our conversation flowed so easily. She works at the welcome desk at the Y where I swim. I was waiting for a friend and had some time. We started chatting. She told me she was a student, and I told her I was a professor at NYU. She perked up. Thwarted by financial strain and disinterested professors, she explained, she was losing interest in getting her degree. I will not name the instituion where she is studying, it shall remain anonymous, as shall Flo’s real name, but I was shocked when she told me her story. How can a young woman, already in college, be so discouraged? It really hurt me. What she needs is a mentor, I thought to myself, a mentor like Benjamin, The Harpist. I shall be her mentor, if only for a few minutes, I said to myself. I asked about her major—English —and when I asked what she likes to read she said she didn’t like to read and, by the way, did I have any tips to “get through” Beowolf and Chaucer. So I gave her some tips—not for “getting through,” but to begin a relationship with these ancient works, and to get into the minds of the writers and oral story tellers who lived so long ago. “I write poetry,” Flo then told me. “And I like Malcolm Gladwell’s books.”

“I thought you told me you didn’t like to read?”

“My teachers don’t care what I have to say. I usually go off on tangents. ”

“I would love you in my class,” I said. “But you do need to learn how to read more tenaciously, at least one book a week,” I said. “Let Malcolm Gladwell lead you to other books. Take notes. Find a line that resonates (I told her the story about the harpist on the train and his resonating harp) and continue the line into your own poem. Follow your heart, discipline your mind. Read everything on your reading list in the same way. Read and write, read and write, all day long. Ignore disinterested professors who may feel as discouraged as you do, by the way. Maintain interest in yourself and your education. You’ve paid your tuition, don’t waste it.”

I gave Flo my card and encouraged her to stay in touch. I want to know how she does this year. Like all young people, she deserves a demanding education and teachers who care about her.

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