When I attended a public high school in northern New Jersey in the 1980s, I was good at English and history, and not much else. I was a disaster in math and science and a mediocre Spanish student. (I could never roll my r’s.) But I coasted in the humanities, probably because I liked to read and write, so it didn’t feel like work. Teachers let me do what I wanted, but most didn’t try to push me in new directions or challenge my smug delusions of mastery. I guess they had a whole class to think about. I was doing okay and certainly didn’t require any heroic, Hollywood-style mentoring.
But even though I could hide it pretty well and got along with most people (except for the Naughton brothers, but that’s another story), I did feel like a freak for a few reasons, including being a fat kid and a Jew in a town where neither identity was particularly path-smoothening. Also, I lived in books with what I sensed was maybe an oddball intensity. Words, and the emotions, images, and ideas they sparked, thrilled me. My peers, even when they were much smarter, didn’t seem to share the same excitement. Once, when called on with a question about the Civil War, I shoehorned the words “salient” and “fortuitous” into my reply. Everybody laughed like I’d just crapped my pants (which I did once do, trying to kick a bully karate-style in sixth grade, but that’s also another story). This wasn’t exactly Eton, but there were sophisticated kids in our school. Still, they must have thought I was being pretentious, and maybe I was. Even the teachers who taught my “good” subjects might have been a little embarrassed for me. This was decades before being a nerd was cool.
There were exceptions, of course—faculty members who made their geekdom visible to varying degrees. At the far end of the continuum stood my English teacher, Mark Wright. He was a tall, handsome guy with a big poof of hair and glasses and a bushy mustache. I seem to remember impossibly tight corduroy jeans and a bizarre, but somehow mesmerizing, belt buckle that was maybe fashioned from a lacquered wedge of birch or oak. He was an energetic instructor, a pacer, an arm-whirler, or perhaps that’s just how he moves in memory, to match the swirl of ideas he loosed in us, or me.
We did American lit that year: Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Whitman. Mr. Wright was keen on Emerson, talked about Emily Dickinson like she was this astonishing friend of his from college. Maybe in a certain sense she was. I learned a lot about literature from Mr. Wright. I learned a lot about everything. He was an accomplished New Orleans–style jazz musician who played an upright piano in his classroom. He loved visual art, and as the year went on, he took a few of us to Manhattan to see paintings by contemporary artists. This was astounding. There were serious people painting right now in 1985! (I’d only been to museums and seen canvasses full of kings, or else splotchy, mid-century rhomboids.)
We’d eat at diners and talk books, movies, plays. He wasn’t married and spoke occasionally of girlfriends, but I always sensed he spent a lot of time alone in his house, playing music, reading, drawing. During the summer, I knew, he went down to New Orleans to hang out with the famous Preservation Hall Jazz Band and occasionally sit in. He seemed to live for those times, spoke of it often in class. He put everything into his teaching and everything into everything else, too. The school year, and our class discussions, somehow seemed a natural extension of his winter woodshedding.
I’d grown up in a house with journalists and writers. That somebody could make a living banging on a typewriter was not a revelation. But there was so much emphasis on being the producer, on getting the advance, the byline, the good review, that sometimes the pleasures of art were lost. The ways all of the arts were connected, the fact that you could move through life steeping yourself in aesthetic experiences and examining them through social and philosophical prisms as well—that was Mr. Wright’s gift to me, and, I imagine, many of his students. His love of literature, his belief in art and thought, was infectious. His acceptance of himself was too, and while this took longer to sink in, it was an equally powerful lesson. Here was a man wise enough to be driven by his passions, not by some pathetic fear of how others might view him. He hoped you admired the large clipboard apparatus he had designed and affixed to his dashboard beside his steering wheel so he could, if struck with inspiration while driving, take notes (after pulling over safely to the shoulder, I always hoped), but he didn’t care if you thought it was nuts. What mattered was that he was bursting with notions and he needed to jot them down, even on the New Jersey Turnpike!
Mr. Wright encouraged my creative impulses and provided a wide, rich context for them. I knew I wanted to do something in the arts, and while writing seemed obvious, his example encouraged me to try other things, which I did, including acting and music, both of which ended up having profound effects on my writing.
One of my favorite memories, though, is of how, like the wonderful teacher he was, he could call out my bullshit without crushing my spirit. One day, I remember, we were reading Poe, and I worked up some cockamamie theory that had nothing to do with the text and everything to do with me wanting to show off my prior knowledge about Poe’s marriage to his thirteen-year-old cousin, as well as some Freudian terminology I’d stumbled upon. I stuck up my hand, ready to dazzle Mr. Wright, my mentor, with my erudition about literature and human sexuality.
“The poem is obviously not about a raven,” I said.
“Okay,” said Mr. Wright, nodding for me to go on.
“It’s about incest and castration anxiety!”
I heard a ripple of snickers around me.
“Nevermore," I said. "Never more will he have a penis.”
At first I wasn’t sure whether my classmates were laughing with me or at me. Soon it just felt like over me. Mr. Wright had a big grin on his face. I waited for the rescue, to see exactly how he would praise my brilliance in front of my occasional tormentors.
“No,” said Mr. Wright.
Deep down I’d known it was a silly theory, but I figured I could will it to profundity, a sort of intellectual magical thinking the clarity of Mr. Wright helped banish.
“No,” he said again.
“But I’m very glad you thought of it,” he said, a warm, if devilishly amused, glint in his eye. “It’s a very exciting interpretation!”
This quieted the class down. We all respected his enthusiasm.
“Absolutely. And we have to try everything as we think these things through.”
If I felt a little humiliated by exposing a bit of my freak core, the shame was ameliorated by Mr. Wright’s final comment. Not only had he not crushed my spirit, he hadn’t even crushed my bullshit, which I could now view as a necessary, nay, salient and fortuitous stage on the journey to Knowledge. He’d shot down my idea because it was stupid and half-baked, but as far as his support for the greater project—namely me learning that the sometimes confusing but often exquisite fizz I felt in the vicinity of poetry and prose was just who I was, and something to cultivate rather than hide—he’d given me everything I needed.
As a person, an artist, and a teacher, I’ve never forgotten it.
What I have tried to forget is the Naughton brothers, except maybe for the day one of them cornered me in a corridor during that same year I was in Mr. Wright’s class. While trying to defend myself, I karate-kicked Brendan in the hip, which sent him flying down to his butt. He got up immediately and thrashed me, but the victory was already mine, because this time I hadn’t crapped my pants.
Copyright © 2022 by Sam Lipsyte
Drawings © 2022 Katya Arnold
SAM LIPSYTE is the author of the story collections Venus Drive and The Fun Parts, and four novels: Hark, The Ask, The Subject Steve, and Home Land, which was a New York Times Notable Book and received the first annual Believer Book Award. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Best American Short Stories, among other places. The recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, he teaches writing at Columbia University.