I was that guy you knew in high school who was a just terrible student: lazy, bored, the essence of an underachiever. I sat in the back of every classroom and passed time drawing on my desk, felt I already had it all figured out, had zero interest in going to college, and was snarkily proud of my the D average. On the first day of eleventh-grade English, however, this little red-haired hurricane of a teacher with huge green tortoiseshell glasses blew through the door. Her name was Joyce Garvin and she noticed almost immediately I couldn’t have cared less about what she was doing, what we were doing, what the world was doing. Instead of writing me off, though, she started slipping me books on the side, among them Kafka’s Metamorphosis and John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse. “Read this,” she’d say, “and tell me what you think. I have a feeling you might like it.” And when it came time to write critical essays, she told me I could substitute short stories for some, if I wanted. I did — both read those books and substitute those short stories. The books, I kid you not, changed my life. I could feel them making me into someone else as I read them. I didn’t know fiction could explode your heart like Kafka’s does, or explode your brain like Barth’s. (Thirty-five years later, I should mention, I wrote a novel called Anxious Pleasures, a retelling of Metamorphosis from the various points of view of Gregor’s family members and others, just to thank Kafka’s text for existing — and Joyce for introducing me to it.) As I read Lost in the Funhouse, I kept thinking: This looks pretty easy. I’ll do that for a living. (Forty-five years later, I should mention, I’m still grasping a little every day just how forehead-slappingly wrong I was.) Joyce began meeting with me after school a couple times a month (imagine how much of her free time she was giving up for the likes of me!) to talk about those books and others, and to work through my god-awful stories with me with a straight face: paragraph by paragraph, line by line, word by word, comma by comma. She taught me to care, both about my vision (Nietzsche used to tell his students at the University of Basel that his job was to help them become themselves), and about the extreme sport called writing. That part I got shortly after I graduated and barely squeaked into a university. What I didn’t get until decades later was how she taught me something much more theoretically profound: that reading is always-already a mode of writing, writing always-already a mode of reading. Know that, I discovered, and you can never quite read or write the same way again. To this day, almost every year I make a pilgrimage back to where I grew up in northern Jersey and stop by to see Joyce (she’s now a sprightly ninety) and thank her again for teaching me that real teaching (like real reading, like real writing) involves the constant, active condition of unlearning.
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