By Susan Neitlich
My work as a teacher was born in the eccentric drama of my childhood family: dozens of Hungarian aunts,
uncles and cousins often showed up at our house bearing noodle kugel—and their old-country stories. There was my mother’s handsome cousin, Teddy, who had a luxuriant moustache and worked as a tour guide in Jerusalem. My mother adored Teddy, as did I, because he had an exciting tale. He had worked on the ship Exodus that transported Jewish refugees from France to Palestine after World War II. From those same cousins came gloriously misguided English expressions, funny characters (my grandmother’s neighbor with the pet monkey) and ample tragedy. My mother reported on it all with gusto, and the mystery of the way their lives had unfolded took hold in my heart.
I see words as tiny shrines with rich offerings, and stories as doors left gently ajar to unexplored rooms. I carry favorite poems in my handbag, and when I go on vacation, I pack what my sister calls my “traveling library,” a group of wise writer-friends to gossip and drink coffee with on the journey. I love poet Gwendolyn Brooks’ description of books as “meat and medicine / and flame and flight and flower, / steel, stitch, and cloud and clout, / and drumbeats in the air.” I love having writers as companions that help me pay attention to the world. I love remembering that the word companion comes from Latin “with bread,” as I feel that my students and I are breaking bread when we gather in class, reading by turn, their young voices piping through the air.
The stories I like best are the children’s, and each child searches for truth with her very own in inflection. They leave their thumbprints on odes to ugly sweaters, summer nights, fire escapes, Thanksgiving football, cherry blossoms, even punctuation. They write about moving to new houses, loving their grandparents and getting pierced ears. The late poet Mary Oliver said it well: “I think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy, and as singular.” The walls of our classroom fall away, and we are suddenly sitting around a dinner table in Hong Kong as a grandmother serves a spicy pork dish. Then we’re saving glimmering wild squid on the coast of Maine, or peeking into an abandoned ancestral house filled with snakes in a Greek village.
Sometimes before a student reads aloud, she will say, “This isn’t good,” and I see what deep courage it takes to be a young writer, or a writer of any age, because all of our stories lead to our hearts and hopes and fears. This year a Muslim student shared a story about being harrassed when wearing a headscarf not far from her madrasa. Her classmates’ outrage at her experience—and their tenderness for her hurt—was palpable in the ensuing silence. We all want to understand ourselves and others better, and to make meaning of and appreciate our time here.
The practice of seeing the fullness of our humanity through our stories is never far from my mind, and some advice about writing can be great life advice, too. In his “List of Essentials” for writing prose, Jack Kerouac gives some stunning pointers: “Be submissive to everything, open, listening / No fear or shame in the dignity of your experience, language, and knowledge / Be in love with your life.” What I hope for my students is for them to find amazement in words, and with them, to practice courage and compassion. What I hope for them is to be in love with their stories—and their lives—as they write and revise them.
Susan Neitlich has taught eighth-grade English and Middle School humanities at Foote since 2009. She is the mother of three Foote graduates: Daniel Broder ’04, Madeleine Broder ’06 and Emma Broder ’08.