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Bugs

The movers were packing up my books. We had been waiting for five hours, they’d been stuck in Brooklyn on another job and then got caught in Good Friday traffic. They were relieved I understood and could wait. There was no choice; we had to be out of the apartment the very next day. So I sent my husband off to play a professional round of Table Tennis and tried to rest, but was too restless.

After culling my books over many weeks, whittling them down to books I needed for research or would read again for pleasure, I still had a lot of books. I had promised myself not to lift a single tome or pack up our kitchen. Kitchens are loaded with breakables, every item has to be wrapped separately. Books are heavy.

The movers were late, the boxes were there waiting, so I was tempted to begin, then stopped this thought. I knew my back wouldn’t survive, which is why we’d hired the movers to pack in the first place. I wouldn’t see a pool again for several days. So I tried to rest, selected Bill Evans on the Pandora app, stretched out on the couch, and started on the current New Yorker. Then I fell asleep. No dreams.

The bell rang at 5 p.m. Two guys, both 30-something, one from Peru, the other from Mexico. They entered the hallway running. I’d contracted for three hours of packing, they’d be done by 8 p.m. Great, I said. I was still so tired I couldn’t think of going anywhere, so I stayed and supervised, so to speak. I didn’t want to slow them down but I was interested. Two young guys, both handsome, both from the other side of our porous border. They must have a story, I said to myself. (This writer cannot resist a story.)

So where are you from? Did you go to college? Do you want to go to college? Okay, college isn’t for everyone. Oh, you are living with your aunt.

Phone ringing.

That’s my mom.

Oh where is she?

In Peru.

Okay great, you’re a good son. Always pick up the phone when your mother calls.

Laughter.

As you are packing my books, do you like to read?

Yes, no, sometimes.

What do you like to read?

I remember in high school, we read Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” I really liked that story.

No kidding, that was the first story I taught my students at Oakland High School.
They loved it. So did I. That bug.

I feel like him some days. I wanted to be an ESL teacher, I had to drop out of school and earn money.

You’d be a great teacher, I said. Think about getting back to school.

This was the guy from Peru talking. The guy from Mexico looked a bit askance, and didn’t know nothing about any bugs.

It’s about being trapped, right? Trapped in a system?

Right, I said.

I thought of all the privileged young men and women I have met whose lives are like parachutes: soft landings, no bugs in sight.

There’s SUNY’s Empire State College, I told my young friend. It’s designed for working men and women. Don’t give up, I’ll write you a recommendation. I’ve got bug clout, I’m a prof at NYU. Anyone who likes Kafka deserves a recommendation.  Read More 
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The Student & The Harpist

Benjamin, of "Arpa International," mentoring LaGuardia High School student, Daniel Mahfooz.
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.  Read More 
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End of Year Thoughts

I write this in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown; the first funeral took place yesterday, I believe, though I don’t know for certain as it has been so painful to read and watch the news. I overheard a man talking on his cell on a street corner : “When I watch the news, I don’t even feel sad, I feel sick.” Once again, a communal grief. President Obama’s well-crafted speech gave some solace. He’s a good writer and/ or his speechwriters are good writers. Still, I wonder how Abe Lincoln might have seized the moment with his well-honed oratory. In those days, according to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, “Team of Rivals,” words—written words—could make or break a candidate. A speech was delivered to a crowd and then printed in the local and national press. Few people, after all, could hear it when it was delivered.

What have we come away with here, what greater awareness? That we can do better, that we must do better—in every sphere of our American lives. At a party the other night, I met two young women, both studying opera and musical theater, who have given up on the idea of a well-rounded conservatory education—the path that most performers have taken in the past—because they couldn’t afford a loan with the prospect of no decent job at the end of it, albeit they are performers not scientists, or so I thought. One, in fact, was a scientist and had wanted to study chemistry, but because she knows so many who have wandered the country in search of work with doctorates in their pockets, she decided to wing it, study theater, and scramble for part-time jobs. She now has four—none of them satisfying—and had to leave the party early to work in a bar.

The next day I went upstate for a conversation with a Dean at SUNY New Paltz, one of New York State’s University campuses. Two years ago, I had been called in to discuss the possibility of a summer writing institute but there was no money to fund it, none at all. The Chairs and Deans were completely frustrated: they could no longer try anything new unless they proved in advance that the class had an audience. Nonetheless, they wanted to talk about it; they are educators, not marketers. Maybe one day, maybe one day soon, they all said. Well, nothing has changed, and won’t in the foreseeable future. Yet they still wanted to talk. Did I have any marketing ideas? Well, I am not a marketing person, I said, but I am pleased to be part of the continuing conversation about the changes in higher education, its greater reliance on virtual platforms, and so on.

Sad to say, both public and private universities are so desperate these days that they are competing with each other for students, many of whom have given up the idea of higher education—as my two young friends at the party the other night—or are attending two-year community colleges, which are cheaper. I wonder how will they expand their intellectual/cognitive abilities without more schooling? Will they become autodidacts? And will we continue to fall behind the EU and China in our educational and entrepreneurial accomplishments? I have had half a dozen Chinese students in my workshop these past two years, recruited by the university, and the Dean I spoke with last week has been to China twice this year on that same mission. Meanwhile, our home-grown students languish, and the excitement of a future in higher education has dimmed. Unless, of course, we are born into privilege or take the opposite route: study abroad, and stay there, as two PhD friends of mine were forced to do—one is working in Saigon, the other in Singapore. In a transnational universe this is not necessarily a bad thing so long as there is equal development and opportunity within our borders.  Read More 
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