I’ve been teaching Writing and Literature in New York City’s public schools for ten years. Last spring, my former building graduated its final class just shy of reaching the century mark. Thousands of students have passed through the building over the decades, many of their pictures still lining the school’s hallways and trophy cases. It’s impossible to contemplate them all. So I’ll focus on just one.
Matthew was the star writer of the literary club, where I served as advisor. When he wasn’t editing the school’s newspaper or acting in a play, he would submit essays equivalent to that of a seasoned adult. His writing was smooth and polished. It possessed insight, integrity, and showed great potential. Since many of the students attended the club for pizza and socializing, Matthew would stop by to drop off new stories and be on his way. He could have stayed to show off his superior skills, but he had no interest in that.
So we began to edit his work privately, sometimes in person, often through the margins of papers handed back and forth through busy hallways. I wanted to show him the power of editing, rooting out those enticing adjectives and adverbs that seduced many young writers. I told him about a professor I once had in grad school, a brilliant essayist who edited students’ work by simply closing his eyes and listening. The man’s sonorous voice remains with me to this day. I wanted Matthew to hear someone’s voice when he wrote. For the first time in my writing life I wasn’t absorbed in my own work. I was delighted in Matthew’s development and his efforts came to inspire me.
The years went by and the boy only got better. We combed over advanced placement essays, college applications, and new material for the magazine. In his junior year he sat down to take the English Regents exam and recorded one of the highest scores in the state.
By senior year Matthew was so immersed in extracurricular activities that I saw him only in passing. One day I handed him a flyer from one of the city’s many teen writing contests. It was sponsored by a gay and lesbian organization that wanted themes specifically geared to their community. I presumed Matthew would write something about marriage equality or gays in the military. I remember the way he turned in his finished piece. He was neither tense nor overtly dramatic. He handed it to me with the same matter of fact confidence as all the others, the fierce self-assurance of the truly talented.
Matthew’s essay was about growing up in a strict, first generation American family and what it was like to openly discuss his sexuality with his father for the first time. He wrote about his initial trepidation. He wrote about the understanding and acceptance they eventually came to share. Matthew had discovered his own voice and he was proud of it. He won that contest then published it in a well known anthology for teens.
We lost touch after that, although I drive by the school occasionally to admire its architecture and reflect on my old classroom. It’s just a high school of the mind now, receding into memory as I head for my new building and a fresh crop of students. I still read Matthew’s essay from time to time; recalling him and those countless others, their spirits soaring over the school’s hallowed bell tower forever.
JB McGeever is writing a novel about the closing of a New York City high school.