(This little essay was originally written for the Random House web site.)
I can’t define myself as a writer without mentioning Lenny Horowitz, my high school English teacher. I never called him Mr. Horowitz. He let us call him Lenny.
Lenny sent my world in a completely different direction (and if you’d seen the direction I was going at the time, you’d understand that he was a lifesaver): he taught me to love reading again, and he told me I could write.
When I was little, nobody had to teach me to love reading. Books were water; I was a duck. I pitched into Dr. Seuss, Winnie the Pooh, the Black Stallion series. I was unstoppable. Then came school, in which my irresistible force met an immovable object. I hated the books I was given to read. They didn’t speak to me. They were almost as bad as–I hate to even utter the word–homework.
I began to avoid reading if possible. I honed the talent of writing book reports on books I hadn’t read. To this day, I have a chip on my shoulder about the classics. I’ve tried twice to read Moby Dick. I give up. I’m not ashamed, either. I like modern, fast-moving fiction. I’ve taken my last run at the great white whale. Ever. It’s over.
Back to Lenny. He gave us different books. Books written in the same century he assigned them. Books with down-and-out characters, people outside the mainstream. I understood these people. I was outside the mainstream. I was overweight and had braces on my teeth. My peer group thought I was from outer space. I liked reading about characters on the margins. We had something in common.
Miracle of miracles, I woke up.
One day Lenny gave out a creative writing assignment: an essay, on any subject. I still remember how he walked up to the blackboard and wrote, in big block letters: I AIN’T TAKING IT AFTER FRIDAY.
Not exactly your run-of-the-mill English teacher, right? I was so impressed by his willingness to meet us where we lived that I decided to impress him back.
I wrote an essay intended to be funny. Always risky. It was a takeoff on the "my dog ate my homework" excuse note, a long, rambling, slapstick story explaining why I was not able to hand in my essay on time.
Sight unseen, Lenny read it out loud in front of the class.
Decades later, I still remember the key line of dialogue. I’m fictionally running up the down escalator at the airport, chasing the guy who picked up the wrong briefcase and is about to get on a plane with my essay. "But Mr. Malenkiowitz," I shout plaintively, "you don’t understand. He ain’t taking it after Friday!"
They laughed. Everybody, including Lenny. They laughed a lot. For a long time. It was my first whiff of the rare smell of success. Lenny told the class my essay was clever. Later I found out he was still talking about it in the staff lounge that day. He told all my other teachers I could write.
If I’d been used to praise at school, it might not have had such an impact. But I was that kid who got picked last for basketball. And dating, well . . . I’d rather not talk about dating. I was used to being told what I couldn’t do. What I could do was more of a mystery. Until Lenny spoke.
Unfortunately, Lenny was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in my junior year. I went on to follow everything but my dream for two more decades. By the time I became a writer for real, it was too late to go back and tell him what he’d done. All I have for Lenny is the tribute. So I’m making it good.
Here’s what I learned in my sophomore year of high school: That the down-and-out character is just as human as everybody else. That you may not want to know him in real life, but in fiction, you just might dare. And in knowing him, you get a lesson in humanity: We’re more the same than we might imagine.
And that even the class outcast has talents. Someone just needs to tell her what they are.