Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Meeting Teacher Man

Summer 2002

Though I hadn’t actually written a memoir, he accepted me into his workshop anyway. Terrified to dig that deep, I had written a novel instead, inspired by true events. Yet, part of me felt like an imposter.
On that very first day of class, we handed in our chapters and were told he would read and return them, graded, at the next scheduled workshop. Graded? I hadn’t been graded since college during the Stone Age and instantly felt the trepidation of impending failure.
Later that same afternoon, while dining in a local café with my husband Steve whose job is to feed me and simultaneously boost my fragile ego, I glanced out the window to see the teacher man, himself, strolling down the street. He looked a bit lost, a tad lonely and overheated, dressed in a yellow Lacoste and khaki shorts.
“Oh my God,” I squealed. That’s my teacher! There he is… Frank McCourt.”
Steve jumped to his feet and was out the door in a millisecond. Through the fogged glass, I watched the strong handshake, took note of the ease and comfort with which these two men met─ writer/ teacher and lawyer/ litigator. Before I could take my first sip of Merlot, Steve and Frank were inside the café, sitting down at my table, Steve now ordering Frank a glass of wine.
“Well, aren’t you the shy fella?” he’d said jokingly to Steve in his unmistakable lyrical speak while I sat there a smile frozen on my face. I was reminded of the time when I was twelve and had seen my science teacher at the bakery. I didn’t know what to talk about: Protons? Inertia? Certainly not the sliced rye I was buying for my mother.
During class that morning, I had not spoken one word to the man─ the writer I admired and felt blessed to have as a teacher, if only for ten days. I’d spent the first class session scribbling down every word he said. I wrote furiously, afraid to miss a phrase or nuance. I was certain I was recording some form of gospel that I could later channel─ tools to make myself a much better writer. I was convinced that if I had only read Joyce, by now, my writing career would be soaring. And why was it that I got married (twice) and had my babies so soon? And why did I listen to my guidance counselor, Mr. Jordan, when he’d said teaching was the career I could always fall back on? Hadn’t I wanted to be a writer since I was ten when I’d hidden curse words between the ivy vines of my wallpaper? Maybe those were the words that could connect me to the story still not told.
Like a mantra, one thought pervaded. Did he read my chapter? This is what I wondered, knees knocking, as these men’s men chatted on like pub pals about basketball─ specifically the N. Y. Knicks. Where had I gone while they made that smooth transition from hello, nice to meet you, to the missed lay-ups of Charles Smith that had kept the Knicks out of the NBA finals? Talk about memoir.
Finally, I blurted out: “Ah, did you, by any chance, get to read my chapter?” It was the voice of a timid third grader that slid out my mouth and disintegrated into the aromatic air of sautéed garlic─ a question from the scrawny kid who puked each morning before going to the bus stop, praying Harvey Schacter wouldn’t aim snowballs at my head.
“I did,” he answered, with only the slightest nod. And that was all he said, and they then moved on to some legal discussion about some infringement case.
Maybe a half hour passed, maybe more. I can’t be sure since all I could focus on was that he had read my work and probably hated it…probably thought I should have stuck to teaching or had a dozen more babies, or become a candy striper at my local hospital.
I looked up from my wilted lettuce and decided to enjoy myself. I was sitting there with someone I loved, who loved me and this teacher man─ almost a stranger, but someone whose writing, in all its heartbreaking honesty, had made me want to write more, to write better, to break through so many self-imposed barriers. That morning in class he had recited the quotation: I look for the pain and then start writing.
Before too long, he stood, muttered a polite thank you and goodbye.
“See you tomorrow then,” I managed, dabbing at my lips with my napkin.
“A”, he said, his face as serious as the brutal humidity still lingering outside.

Sande Boritz Berger
Published in The Southampton Review Summer 2009


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