In 1982, while a graduate student at Columbia University, I taught Introduction to Freshman Composition, a remedial course for bright but inarticulate young men just entering the college. (Columbia was still all-male back then.) I’d never taken Freshman Composition of any kind, so I found the class useful and interesting. Indeed, I developed an appreciation for fluid non-fiction as a result of the class, and the skills that I learned by teaching have served me well. For even though my heart lies in writing literary fiction, my bank account depends on my ability to write clear, expository, prose.
I earned my PhD and moved to Vermont, creating a free-lance career outside the academic mainstream. I lost touch with all my students and most of my colleagues from my New York days – until 2009. That’s when I received an email from a former student, who wrote to thank me for my tutelage.
Daniel Chamovitz, that former student, is now a professor of biology at Tel Aviv University, where among other classes, he teaches a course called “Scientific Writing in English for PhD Students”. In his letter, he explained how a student had asked him how he learned to write, prompting him to remember the C- I gave him for what he now says, “was, in retrospect, a very pitiful piece of work.”
In his long and lovely letter, he says that his success as a scientist is due as much to his writing skills as it is to any scientific achievements. It concludes with thanks “for the path you started me on.” I never dreamed I’d had such an impact on any of those young men, let alone such a positive one that would be remembered three decades later.
Of course I replied, and we’ve maintained the correspondence. When we met in 1982, Danny was a mere 18 to my mature 24. Now, that six-year gap seems insignificant. (My youngest child and his oldest are the same age.) But best of all, we’re now both authors. Danny’s book, What A Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses of Your Garden – and Beyond, was just published in a joint venture between Scientific American and FSG. And Danny is coming to read from it at this year’s Brattleboro Literary Festival.
The 2012 Brattleboro Literary Festival takes place October 12-14. It’s a fabulous way to spend a weekend in downtown Brattleboro, Vermont, a gateway community with a vibrant literary and arts economy – and really good food – in the southeast corner of the state.
I go every year. Hearing authors read aloud is a treat; meeting them is a thrill; talking books with other book-lovers a great way to spend a weekend. And this year, on Saturday afternoon, I’ll be introducing my former C- student, whose book, What A Plant Knows deserves an A+.
Deborah Lee Luskin is novelist, essayist and educator. She is a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio, a Visiting Scholar for the Vermont Humanities Council and the author of the award winning novel, Into The Wilderness. For more information, visit her website at www.deborahleeluskin.com