Yesterday I went to a memorial service for a former student. She had been my student in three different places over the years: at my first teaching job at the West Side Y, then in the graduate writing program at NYU, and finally in my private class. She was only a few years younger than I, but I’ve discovered over the years that age doesn’t matter when it comes to the relationship between writing student and teacher. I have students much older than I am, and younger ones, but it is almost always the case that once I am someone’s teacher, I remain in that role for the rest of our lives. I guess it’s sort of like shrinks and patients. I’ve been at dinner parties with shrinks of mine, but still…our primary relationship remains.
The memorial was beautiful and sad. Ellen was extravagantly gifted. She was genuinely brilliant, big-hearted, ablaze. She couldn’t stop. At first glance, her work was wild and messy and original. As writer friends and colleagues stood up and read pieces of her first (and, it turns out, only) novel, I was struck anew at just how good it is, sentence by sentence. Just how careful, within all that wildness.
I had found myself curiously dry-eyed since the day, just after New Year’s, when I heard she had died. But yesterday, at the memorial, each time I saw another of the students from her class at NYU walk through the door, I became unhinged. It had been an amazing class, one of the best groups of students I had ever taught. I loved them, and I loved being part of their struggles and their triumphs. Ellen was the first of them to sell a book. She sold her novel well before graduating from the program. And I knew that there was envy. There was a feeling among the others of “why not me? will this ever happen for me?” The feeling was as futile as it was natural and unavoidable. I had one student in tears in my office, certain–at the age of, oh, twenty-seven or so–that it was over for her. Seeing these wonderful people yesterday–a dozen years later–each one of them coming into the brownstone where the memorial was being held, I saw the passage of time. I saw the way time works on all of us. Each one of them had books published to considerable acclaim. Each of them had achieved that elusive thing which, back at NYU, they thought would solve their whole lives. After all, wasn’t publishing a book the key to the kingdom? But then, each had discovered that the goal posts had moved, there were no keys, there was no kingdom. Lives don’t get solved. They get lived. And sometimes they are cut short. These students–who had sat around a workshop table all those years ago–were stricken. Something had been taken away from them, even though for most of us it had been many years since we’d seen Ellen.
We’re here. This is what I read on their faces. We’re still here, and writing books, and making babies, and after this memorial we’ll walk out into the evening on Tenth Street and go out to dinner, or meet friends, or pay the babysitter. We’ll go back to our lives. And she–the one who burned so brightly–is gone.