Last week I read at Books & Books in Westhampton Beach, a cozy independent bookstore with affiliate branches in Miami and other places. It was a Thursday night, the calm before the Hamptons weekend crowd storms the gates.
I scanned the small crowd of writing students and faculty members of the nearby MFA program in Southampton. I was having a chat with my book design cover, Casey Telesk, when my eyes fell upon a very familiar face. It was my ninth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Pantorno. She lives in Westhampton Beach and apparently had gotten word of my upcoming reading.
Mrs. Pantorno gave me my first writing award. Ironically, she presented it to me while I was serving my time in ISS (In-School Suspension). I don’t remember the offense. I remember being surrounded by kids you may not have wanted as friends, but you certainly didn’t want as enemies. I remember a lot of pearl-clutching as she stepped gingerly into the hot wooden portables that served as our ISS room. The writing award was a printed certificate with yellow yarn tied around it as a ribbon.
I remember thinking ‘you’re gonna get me killed, bringing that to me in here.’ I wasn’t killed. I was merely ogled. Criminals narrowed their eyes at me. They’d discovered I wasn’t one of them. I was petrified, but excited at the same time.
Of course I didn’t belong there—at least not permanently, as some students had taken up residence. For me it was a perfect metaphor. I was in the big-house, but there was a way out. Writing was a way out.
Twenty-five years later, I still have that award, tucked away in a literal treasure chest I keep in my basement. I think I’ll go dust it off. To remind me. To remind my kids.
Such is the power of a teacher. Without knowing it, she was able to hand me a sheet of paper that I might as well have considered a ticket. It was the first time someone outside of my family and friends had acknowledged that I had some degree of talent. That I should keep at it. That choices existed. It might have saved my life. It saved me from any more ISS visits, that’s for sure. I knew I co uldn’t show my face in there again, or I’d get shivved.
I’m kidding. But the gesture was no joke. It kept me on the path early. As I’m about to embark on a new professional journey in Brooklyn next week, I’m excited for the opportunity to keep someone else on that path.