I have written — quite extensively I might add — about the late Harold Isaac Meltzer over the past two and a half years. I still have plenty more to write about my favorite and probably best teacher between seventh grade and my doctorate. But I’ve neglected to mention that there have been others. Others whom did manage to reach me as a student and a person during my Boy @ The Window years. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a short list. In six years of Humanities, about six teachers in all would fit the mold of above-average or outstanding, while at least twice as many would be somewhere between mediocre and miserable.
Once again, I’ve digressed into the negative. I had one teacher, and only one teacher, that made my senior year at MVHS worthwhile. It was first-period AP English with a Rosemary Martino. She was someone whose aspirations beyond teaching were obvious, which both took my breath away and brought frightening chills to my bones. For she wanted to write, not just teach about writers, but actually write. Even in grad school, I only knew of one professor who loved to write beyond scholarly analysis, and his writing chops were atrocious. Oops, I went there again! Anyway, Martino could talk about the art and craft of writing for days if the course had been about more than reading the existential and the utilitarian for our eventual AP English exam.
But our AP English teacher wasn’t a favorite of mine at the beginning of the year. She was immediately disappointed with us because we weren’t particularly motivated to do the readings and the work. Almost none of us had touched a tomb during the summer of ’86, and we were exactly motivated to read at thirty-five or more pages per hour to start the school year off well. We started with Albert Camus’ The Fall, a bit of swirling existential thinking about the nature of inhumanity in human nature. Oui, oui — more like Oy vey! We moved on to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic Crime and Punishment, a seven-hundred-page marathon read of humanity at its worst that took us from mid-October through early December. Martino’s choices, though impressive in complexity, didn’t exactly inspire.
I knew I needed to read more, and read for arguments, plot, hidden plot, characters and character development, the tone and pitch of narration, the shifts in the narrative, and so on. That took time, and lots of it. Time I didn’t have between two other AP courses, college applications, SATs, not to mention my continuing saga at 616, as I’d become the go-to-child for every adult chore imaginable, short of working a full-time job. Of course, it didn’t help that I spent most of my spare moments in October ’86 watching or listening to every play the Mets made on their way to a World Series championship. I had a really wonderful teacher at the wrong time in my life. I should’ve found a way to have taken classes with her the year before.
So I spent about half of twelfth grade treading water in Martino’s class. My grades were barely adequate C+’s from mid-October to mid-February, sneaking in an occasional A or A- whenever I found two hours and a quiet place to write. I even managed an “Outstanding” A on my Dostoevsky essay in December, this despite only skimming the last third of his long and winding road. What helped was that I also had Martino for Philosophy from Socrates to Sartre. For whatever reason, I took to the half-year course better than I did AP English. Martino’s curriculum seemed more free-form and her lectures much more opinionated than in the full-year course. Her obsession with the existential and the dehumanizing made Dostoevsky easy to understand. Based on my 616, Humanities and MVHS years, I could certainly relate to existential philosophy on a personal level.
Martino shifted gears from the existential novel to poetry and plays for a while at the beginning of February, from Archibald Macleish’s “You, Andrew Marvell” and Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House to Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. She even threw in a creative writing assignment. The assignment was for us to write a short story. I wrote a short story titled “The Way It Is,” corny I realized even at the time. A better title would’ve been “On the Brink of Obsession” or “Role Reversal” or “A Pathetic Tale.” The story was about me and my crush # 2 and a take on some of our more coy conversations over the previous three years. Except that I had switched our names, feminizing my name and masculine-izing hers in this story. I handed the essay in, talked about it in class, and yet not a single person, including Martino and crush # 2, picked up on the not-so-subtle hint in the story.
We also read the late Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. This time around, the post-modern, post-structural, neo-Marxist perspectives on dehumanization and the end of the world as some of us knew it didn’t bother me. My grades went up again, even though my concentration and my time-to-task had dropped. I wrote my essay on Catch-22 the night before it was due, in my mother’s bedroom, in front of my stepfather’s portable TV, with the Rangers winning a close game. I started doing so well that Martino said to me one day before class, “you know, if you’d work harder, you could become a really good writer.”
I looked at her for a second. Martino was a very attractive teacher in her late-twenties, with that burning-the-candle-at-both-ends look around the eyes. She had short brown hair and was about five-three or five-four. Besides that, she was an aspiring writer in her own right. Martino had published a few short stories, was a big Anne Rice fan, and wanted to follow in her footsteps. So when she paid you a compliment, you tended to pay attention. Despite the backhanded nature of her praise, I thought very quickly of the image of the starving artist, the famous-after-death ones like Edgar Allan Poe, Vincent Van Gogh or Emily Dickinson. “I don’t want to become a starving artist,” I said in response. The idea of being a writer was still an attractive one to me, but I wanted to do and be something that would at least make it possible to have three squares a day. Martino didn’t push the issue. I thought I hit a sore spot with the “starving artist” image. She still talked with me first thing in the morning about the news and about her writing, but left my aspirations alone.
I only have a few regrets regarding all of the teachers I had between September 8 of ’74 and November 22 of ’96. One of them was that I didn’t attempt to get to know Rosemary Martino better. Meltzer may have inspired to me to write more. But it was Martino whom inspired me to write better, more literary, with some degree of passion and opinion, and not just facts. While the psychological and social dysfunctions of Humanities prepared me well for graduate school, my classes with Martino did help me with no less than five undergraduate courses at Pitt.
In the process, she managed to do something that even Meltzer couldn’t do. Martino awakened the writer in me, the writer that had been on hibernation since Memorial Day ’82. After her class, I couldn’t entirely say that I had no idea what to do with my life besides taking another classmate’s sardonic advice and appearing on Jeopardy. I will forever be in her debt because of it. So, Rosemary Martino, whatever your reading, writing or doing these days, many, many thanks!