I plan most of my postings in advance. So there’s a bit of irony involved in this particular posting, since I had already planned to write about one of the great influences in my life to date, a man who died all too soon and with all too much bitterness in his heart and mind. Then Michael Jackson died on Thursday, a loss I can’t fully comprehend just yet. Even when accused of molestation, I kept playing his music, separating the genius from whatever issues he struggled with outside of his musical artistry. I know that I am hardly alone in saying that MJ will be sorely missed. However, another great influence — one who will remain relatively unknown — is one I also miss, for his eccentricities, his wisdom, his passion for students and teaching. One Mr. Harold I. Meltzer.
My second interview with Meltzer occurred on a typically windy fall day in November ’02. I came up to New Rochelle by Metro-North’s New Haven Line. I knew that my favorite mentor wasn’t in the greatest of shape based on his recent letters and my first attempt to interview him that August.
I rang Meltzer’s doorbell four times before he answered. His voice now labored to say the words “H.M. here?” It was a third-floor walk-up for me, but it left me in less distress than the heavy-breathing Meltzer was in just walking from his telephone in his dining room area to his front door, about thirty feet in all. I was in some shock when he answered the door. Meltzer had gained about fifty pounds in the three-and-a-half years since my ’99 visit. His broken and in constant-traction-back, not to mention his surgically-repaired knees, had left Meltzer barely able to walk with the assistance of a cane or his walker. He always had a bow in his upper back. With the extra weight, my former teacher now looked about fifteen years older than his actual age. He was shirtless, but did wear some gray sweats to cover his bottom.
His apartment, though messier than when I visited him last, still felt like a teacher or artist’s flat. Having seen Finding Forrester the year before, his apartment reminded me very much of the hermetic character Sean Connery had played in the film. It was old and musty, a place just big enough to get lost in but not big enough to feel luxurious. It was filled with books and magazines and newspapers. Not to mention blue books, essays, and other evidence of Meltzer’s long career in Mount Vernon’s public schools. Meltzer had the radio set to WQXR-FM, a New York-area classical station. The music was bittersweet, as was Meltzer’s mood. He was definitely happy to see me, but probably would’ve preferred being in better physical shape.
“So, you wanted to know what these characteristics were . . . what kind of student you were based on what I perceived. Well that’s the easiest thing in the world!,” he began after I’d gone to the store to buy him lunch. To me at least, Meltzer’s voice had immediately changed from this worn and forlorn tone to his more cheerful and hopeful one. He must’ve transported himself back to ’85.
“I had a few students, not many, just a few, you were one of the few, you would sit on the edge of your seat because you were so skinny . . . and you eyelids never blinked . . . because when you were fascinated, you know, everything fascinated you, you watched the chalkboard like a hawk. . . .” he continued. I found myself in ’85 again, reliving the memories of Meltzer and his classroom, the rhythm of his voice, the stunned silence of my classmates, the rustle of leaves from the high school courtyard tree closest to Meltzer’s window, the occasional chalk-trauma. ” . . . even though you never moved a muscle in your face, your eyes used to flash . . . I could see that. . . . no one else could see but I could see . . .”
Meltzer meandered into a discussion of my academic progress in his class. “And many times when you read the question over and tore open the blue book . . . and in the end there were maybe three or four lines written. They were gems of writing, absolute gems, but you needed to have more, you see, because they [the College Board] wanted more,” Meltzer said.
And because of Meltzer, I did give them—and him—more. So much more that I earned the coveted “5” on the AP American History exam. I guess that was why he never worried about me.
We spent the last couple of hours discussing the book idea that would become Boy At The Window. Meltzer thought that it should be a fiction novel, based on the real flesh and blood folks in my life, but with different names of course to protect me from any potential lawsuits. He did make me rethink the project from a simple research study of my high school years into narrative nonfiction and memoir. Then we hugged and said our good-byes.
“It was so good to see you, Donnie.”
“Come back over soon. We should talk again.”
“Don’t worry. I will.”
Who were we kidding? We both knew that his days were numbered, and that this second interview was likely the last time we’d talked. I was honored to be able to spend the day with him, to gain some additional insight about my long-time mentor and friend. Not to mention Mount Vernon and MVHS. Those eight hours together in conversation were as precious as any moments I’ve experienced as a student and a teacher. And in making sure that Meltzer knew how much I appreciated him, I kissed his forehead and gave him a big hug as I left his place for the final time. He died on January 9 of ’03.
Crush #1 once said, “[Meltzer] really taught me how to write. . . . I know I relied on his methods heavily when I was at NYU writing all of those essays.” I just wished that she and so many of his other students had told him the same thing in his final days.
I learned so much about how to be a good teacher from Meltzer. But I also learned how much of a toll teaching and dealing with uncaring teachers, administrators, parents and other adults can take on you. I have vowed to strike a balance ever since. It’s been almost six and a half years since his death, but I know his influence on me will continue for as long as I continue. Still, I miss Meltzer very much.