“This is a first-class piece. Do you always write this well?” Thus ended the comments by the late Nora Magid on my first essay for her advanced non-fiction workshop (English 135) my junior year at Penn.
Nora encouraged us to write back with comments on her comments. I wrote, “What do you mean?”
Our weekly assignment was to write: two pages, double spaced. Nora—never “Professor”—was a former magazine editor and frequent contributor. Sometimes she assigned the topic (“Why I Live Where I Live,” for example), and sometimes it was a freebie. She arrived before each class and wrote excerpts from students’ work on the chalkboard—anything particularly brilliant or ghastly, or sometimes points of grammar or style. During class, she handed out anonymous copies of students’ papers for the class to read. Sitting cross-legged on the desk in baggy denims, she opened the floor to comments. Following her lead, we voiced our opinions with frankness, respect and only faint exasperation toward that jerk in the second row.
When my next essay came back with comments of equal praise, I was frightened. “Why?” she asked during office hours. “You write very well.”
I had become a gun-shy writer after my freshman-year career at The Daily Pennsylvanian, which had lasted for exactly one article. The piece had something to do with the School of Social Work, and the DP features editor chewed me a new body cavity for confirming my notes with a source just before the article was to go to press. My notes were none of my source’s business, she screamed at me in front of the crowded newsroom. “You are a reporter for The Daily Pennsylvanian!”
Not after that, I wasn’t.
The summer after freshman year, I worked at a big radio station. My title was desk assistant, and the job description translated roughly to “schlepper.” I ripped wire-service copy and gave it to the producer. I made files, answered phones, bought newspapers and toted around stacks of eight-track-sized tapes known as carts. Carts have terrific fidelity, especially when dropped. At least my work made the air.
Sophomore year, I concentrated on my a cappella group, studied in France, made new friendships and cemented old ones, had a three-day hangover and an ugly roommate dispute (bygones). I did not write…
… until my junior year, when I was intrigued by friends’ descriptions of Nora’s class. The first session confirmed her reputation. Her opinions were definite, and her criticism—both negative and positive—was studied and justified. It was her sureness that frightened me.
Class with Nora was like therapy. You paid a lot of money (in this case, tuition) to confront yourself. For once I liked what I saw.
I didn’t know what I was doing that made Nora like my work, but I kept doing it. I spent days perfecting—this was just before everyone had a computer, so I became a fair typist in the process. I made myself laugh, and I read my work to friends and family over the phone.
With Nora’s encouragement I competed for and won the student column in this very magazine my senior year. You may remember the piece in which I got a massage. Can’t do that at the DP.
Since graduation I have had many occupations—teacher, venture capitalist, MBA student, associate movie producer, consultant, salesman, executive, actor—and some success. I’ve traveled through Asia, bought a condo, and turned 35. Yet when my last job fell through, in a What Color Is Your Parachute? moment, I admitted to myself that the one thing that I had done well in all of these situations was write, and I stopped forcing myself to be something I’m not.
My first try, I was published nationally, then I won a competition to be a restaurant critic, and now I am becoming a frequent contributor myself. Every so often I hear Nora telling me that I write very well … along with my dad telling me that I’d better make enough money to support myself.
Nora died in March of 1991. Though I often thanked her for her encouragement, I am sorry that she cannot read this—on earth at least. She was special because she was one of the few teachers I’ve known to give praise that was trustworthy. Often in America, praise is either condescending or so effusive as to be cheap, unearned. Criticism, on the other hand, seems to come naturally.
If I, with the advantages to get as far as Penn, felt that I had lacked genuine encouragement, I shudder to think what happens elsewhere. Kids nationwide are told that they are inferior, and in many high schools the goal often seems to be crowd-control and crime-prevention rather than growth and learning.
It is easy, funny and even fashionable—as one spin of the TV dial will show—to deride. And in the real world, the cumulative effect of everything from bad news to snide put-downs muttered under the breath can be devastating. Every little remark contributes to the climate of meanness so often written about in modern America.
It takes maturity and judgment to offer meaningful criticism, and Nora was secure enough with herself that she had the courage to encourage. Given the payoff of encouragement like hers, I can only wonder what greatness our society could achieve if our students were told more often that they are first-class, by mentors who know what that means and mean what they say.