Dani Shapiro
December 17, 2009

On Finding Your Teachers

I have made many mistakes and missteps in my life, but looking back, one thing I can truly say I’ve always been good at is identifying my teachers–that is, the people who would respond to me, who were in a position to help me, who I respected and wished to emulate. Even in high school, during which I was otherwise a train wreck, I sought out the most engaging English teacher in the school and befriended him. We’re friends to this day, and when I read in Boston on my last book tour, he was in the audience, and let me tell you, that meant so much to me I could barely trust my voice.

In college, I was still something of a train wreck (see: Slow Motion) but I also found my teachers, and I don’t think it would be overly dramatic to say that I would have been lost without them. I remember sitting in Grace Paley‘s office, on the floor (somehow we always sat on the floor in Grace’s office, and sometimes even in her lap) and Grace telling me that I was a writer and I should go to graduate school. I’m pretty sure she just pointed at the door to the graduate writing program at Sarah Lawrence and suggested I walk through it. What more, really, can a teacher do than guide a student to the right door? Then, in graduate school, I received a note one day from one of the professors, Jerry Badanes, who had read a short story of mine for a contest, and invited me to lunch. During that lunch, he and I discovered that a film he had written years earlier about shtetl life in Poland contained archival footage of my family: my grandfather and great-grandfather reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish at the foot of my great-great-grandfather’s grave in a tiny village.

The Shapiro footage, Jerry’s face lit up. You’re the Shapiro footage!
I knew then, that he would help me. That he had lived, in a way, with my ancestors. That he had things to teach me, and that I would learn from him.

Jerry and I spent years meeting at Edgar’s Cafe on the Upper West Side, or sometimes at E.A.T. on Madison Avenue, when he was feeling particularly celebratory. He taught me a lot about craft, but even more than craft, he taught me something about what it meant to live as a writer, to work as a writer, to think as a writer. When he died, suddenly and far too young, it was like losing a member of my immediate family.

During the last two years, as I’ve been working on my new memoir, Devotion, I once again found my teachers. I didn’t go looking for them; I didn’t have to. Apparently, I was ready for them, and they appeared. The great Buddhist teacher, Sylvia Boorstein, the gifted yogi and author, Stephen Cope, and the brilliant rabbi, Burt Visozky. When I set out on the journey that became Devotion, I didn’t know that I would meet a Buddhist, a Yogi and Rabbi who would be my guides along the way. Their willingness to be my teachers — as was true with my high school English teacher and with my graduate school mentors — has taught me a lot about the sacred nature of that relationship.

With my own students, I try to pass it on.