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Writers Institute should hearten English teachers

Noted authors draw enthusiastic audiences, prove that writing is still important

It was one of those days when my job as a seventh-grade English teacher seemed pointless.

My students weren�t focusing. They were bored, and I was bored. We were reading a play about the Orson Welles 1938 radio show "War of the Worlds," but my students seemed more interested in the leaves blowing against the windows.

I thought maybe if I could get them in a discussion, I might wake them up. "Isn�t this amazing that so many people actually thought this radio show about an alien invasion was actually happening?" I said.

A student in the back of the room shrugged his shoulders. I waited for a few more seconds and then reluctantly said, "OK, whose turn is it to read?" Another student lifted his head and began mumbling through his lines.

Just before lunch, during our 30-minute study hall, I tried my best to get everyone working on something, and at the same time, I tried to keep them relatively quiet. "I don�t have anything to do," said the always-cantankerous Andrew.

"I know you have a book you have to read for my class," I said. He rolled his eyes and took his book out and then began paging his way through it.

When the room had reached some semblance of quiet, I took out my book that I had been reading. For the past two weeks, I had been devouring the new book about Abraham Lincoln by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin called "Team of Rivals." I proceeded to lose myself into the book for the next 20 minutes, reading about Lincoln and his Cabinet, and how they debated about what to do concerning the Confederate rebels and their firing upon Fort Sumter.

Occasionally I was interrupted by a few students, and I wrote a bathroom pass, answered a few questions about a math problem, and three or four times told the class to keep the noise down.

With five minutes to go, I closed my book and said, "I am reading such an excellent book. It�s about Abraham Lincoln, and it�s so wellwritten, I feel like I�m right in the room with him when he�s making these big decisions about the Civil War, and the best part is that this afternoon I�m going to hear the author speak at SUNY at Albany."

A student seated by the window quickly raised his hand. "Can I go to the bathroom?"

And that�s how most of the day went, but what got me through was the realization that I was going to hear author Doris Kearns Goodwin speak about the very book I was reading. She has been a favorite of mine for many years now, and she�s just one of the many authors I�ve heard speak in person as part of the Visiting Writers Series of the New York State Writers Institute.

The Writers Institute was established in 1984 by Pulitzer Prizewinning novelist William Kennedy. Today, the Writers Institute is one of the best literary programs in America, and many people in the Capital Region aren�t even aware of it. Each fall, winter and spring, the Institute brings in the greatest writers of our age. They usually speak at an informal afternoon session, and then they return in the evening for a public reading.

Through the years, I�ve seen some of my all-time favorite authors, from E.L. Doctorow and Philip Roth to Joyce Carol Oates, and all the talks are free.

I love going to the afternoon sessions, which are usually conversations about writing with the author and the audience. A few years ago, I sat in on one with Richard Ford, a favorite author of mine, when there were only about 10 of us in the room. We all sat around a table and talked. It was a fantastic experience.

On this particular day, I was really in need of a good afternoon seminar from Doris Kearns Goodwin. I was feeling pretty discouraged that my students were more interested in Paris Hilton and Terrell Owens than they were in a book or an author.

I tried to remind myself that they were only in seventh grade, and at that age a book can�t really compete with a football player or a celebrity. But then I thought about something Norman Mailer said at the Writers Institute a few years earlier: "Nobody�s reading fiction anymore, and writers aren�t important. I remember a time when we were important, but nobody cares about us anymore."

If no one cares about writers and about reading, then I began to wonder, as I drove to the seminar, what�s the point of being an English teacher? Has my career of 25 years really meant anything? Has it made any difference?

I walked into the seminar, and the place was packed. There must have been close to 300 people crowded into every inch of Assembly Hall. There were people of all ages, and most of them were clutching Goodwin�s new book on Lincoln. Maybe writers still matter, I thought, as I made my way to one of the last remaining seats in the corner of the room.


The audience was very friendly, and many of them were carrying on conversations with people around them about books, Lincoln, the Civil War, writers and Doris Kearns Goodwin. I was having a nice chat with a man next to me when he said, "You look very familiar. Do you teach at the Bethlehem Middle School?"

I told him that I did teach there, and then he smiled. "You taught my daughter Sarah quite a few years ago." I remembered his daughter as a wonderful student and a voracious reader.

"She lives in Hollywood now. You�d be proud of her. She�s a television writer, and now she�s working on a novel. She always loved your class." He then went on to tell me about some of the other students I taught, friends of his daughter, and many of them had gone into the arts, had become writers and actors, and I felt so proud to hear of their success. And then the audience was applauding because Doris Kearns Goodwin had entered the room.

Her one-hour informal conversation with the audience was literate, entertaining and wonderful. And as I sat there, I knew that Norman Mailer was wrong. It was obvious to me that writers still mattered. It was also obvious to me that being an English teacher is still one of the most important professions of our age.

And I felt so proud to know that some of my ex-students were writing and performing, and I sat there looking at William Kennedy sitting so proudly in the center of the room, and I wanted to seek him out, shake his hand, and thank him for beginning this wonderful Writers Institute over 20 years ago.

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