The Wizard In The Closet
This is what matters to me: No matter what, I will live in a way that honors what people create. — Mark Doty
JERRY STERN was my writing professor. He had a bad thumbnail, a giant, milky moonstone at the end of his right hand. To me his molting bluish nail was magical, wizardly, as though he could tell the future with it. I wanted a blue-moonstone fingernail; I wanted to see the future.
I was nineteen years old when I met Jerry Stern, and for a decade I secretly pretended that he was my real father. I wanted to grow up to be just like him: college teacher, book author, with my own office. I didn’t dare think it possible. Pretending to be related to him already felt transgressive.
Jerry dared to think I could be all of that. He asked me pointed questions. He gestured with that strange, discolored thumb. He taught me how to write short stories, how to teach, and also how to turn my teenage self into a passable adult. He did all this using his thumb, his questions, and his pained facial expressions.
I’d never met anyone like him before. I was from Orlando, Florida. Jerry was from New York City. He wore t-shirts and black jeans and the hybrid shoe of middle age, a rubber-soled leatherette affair that implied mobility but promised stability: he might spring forward, it said, but probably not. He kept his lips pressed tight together when he wasn’t talking, giving the impression — before you got to know him — that he was holding back a withering commentary, and if only you weren’t so stupid, he might be able to relax. I was terrified of Jerry Stern, and it’s only now, ten years after his death, that I can think about who he was and what he did for me.
There’s some urgency in my conjuring him now. I’ve been noticing, sitting in my beautiful office at the college where I teach (two thousand miles from Jerry’s former office at Florida State University, but facing the same direction, west), that lately when I meet with students, I’ve been doing all the talking. I’m quick to get to the heart of a story’s problem. I’m eager; I’m good at explaining; I tell them everything. And I’m always right.
This is the opposite of how Jerry taught. He sent me on errands, and when I returned — from picking up a writer at the airport, dropping off a poster at the printer, hanging flyers on bulletin boards, getting a book from the library — he wanted to know, he needed to know: “What did you notice? What was interesting?” He taught me that all writers are essentially travel writers. The trip hadn’t really taken place until you’d found a story in it and told it. Only after shaping the trip into a narrative could you honestly say, “I’m back.”
To Jerry, everything was potentially interesting. When parents say, “Pay attention,” they mean, “Know in advance when danger will occur” — which, of course, is impossible. But Jerry showed me how to pay attention; how to look and then say what I had seen, precisely, accurately, truly. Jerry embodied attentiveness. His gift to his students was to pass on this process of attending to the world.
My dog Cubby, a teacher in his own right, subscribes wholeheartedly to the same approach: Let’s go out and notice every little thing, he tells me. Let’s look again at everything we’ve seen before. Though I’m a serious academic and generally opposed to such woo-woo ideas, I’m sure Cubby — who found me exactly one month to the day before Jerry died — is a spirit transfer from my old professor. Jerry was a dog man, and I think of Cubby as his apostle, carrying on his teachings.
RATHER THAN TALK, Jerry often responded to what I was saying with grimaces; he was an alchemist of facial expressions, combining in one look two seemingly unrelated elements: joy mixed with doubt, mystification laced with curiosity. I learned what to keep talking about by reading his face: tiny details thrilled him; assumptions caused him pain. By following his expressions and that thumb of his as it waxed and waned and waggled, I learned to steer toward books, questions, and radio, and away from bad boys, literary theory, and complaining.
When I complained about an annoying fellow student named Marci, Jerry said, “Ah. Mmm. Yes. She’s interesting.” And he presented me with his famous combination grin-wince.
Off I went on this new errand: to figure out what was interesting about Marci, who wouldn’t shut up, who had nothing to say, who disagreed with Jerry in class, and who, worst of all, flirted with Greg, a boy I had a crush on.
I returned to Jerry with a report. He tucked his thumb into his fist. He closed his eyes and nodded.
After the Marci conversation, I wrote a short story in which the main character had my flaws and Marci’s strengths, and I sent my fictional composite to break up with a wonderful, terrible, fictional man. I made the whole thing up, but it felt like the truest story I’d ever written.
When I brought it to class, Jerry grinned and said, “Interesting,” and I felt anointed.
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