Dispatches | April 17, 2015
Death of a Mentor
By Angie Netro
A little over a year ago, my writing mentor – Lester Goran – passed away. I learned about his death by accident. While sifting through mail sent to my childhood home, I found an Arts and Sciences magazine from my alma mater, the University of Miami. Flipping through the magazine’s pages, I saw Professor Goran’s picture, then the year of this birth (1928), then the hyphen, then the year of his death (2014).
The last time I’d corresponded with Professor Goran was a year before, when I’d e-mailed him news of my Creative Writing PhD acceptance. The last time I’d heard his voice was via phone a few months before that: when I’d asked him for a recommendation letter. And the last time I’d seen him was ten years ago. Before my MFA graduation, I sat in his office, crying, thanking him for everything he’d done for me and promising him that, one day, I would make him proud.
When Professor Goran taught me, he was already in his seventies: a tall, sturdy man, but his soft shuffle through the English Department announced his age. I knew a sad truth; I might not have a lot of time to make him proud. And, back then, making Professor Goran proud meant one thing: publication. Making Professor Goran proud meant getting my stories out there in the world.
But then I graduated, moved home to Baltimore, began teaching composition full-time, disengaged from my first love, became engaged with someone else, nursed my grandmother through an aneurysm, stood alongside my mother while cancer took her life…and in all that time, about ten years, the only thing I published was a short piece of non-fiction, one featured in a now-defunct Baltimore magazine, a piece I didn’t even publish under my own name. The pen name I chose: a pairing of my first name with Professor Goran’s.
But Lester, too, was a pen name. I believe Professor Goran’s real first name was Sylvester. I’d told him once how much I wanted to shed my last name and start anew, but Professor Goran insisted I keep my name as is: Angie Netro. He never articulated his reasoning, but he often referred to me as a fusion of my first and last names: Angienetro. He’d begun this habit when, as a University of Miami undergraduate, I’d taken his autobiography course. Professor Goran had a reputation for being tough, for telling it like it is, for giving very little instruction. Our first assignment in that class consisted of a few words: Write about your secret self. And, after he’d read our pieces, he sat in front of the class, our essays in his hand. From what I remember, he went through the essays, commenting on each one out loud.
“This is not so good,” he might say.
“Eh,” he might say about another.
I remember feeling petrified, dreading the moment he’d announce his thoughts about my work. But then he fused my name for the first time: Angienetro. Then he read my essay out loud. Then he said something complimentary, something I wish I could remember, but everything he said in the years that followed I memorized as best I could:
Angienetro, you should keep writing.
Angienetro, you should take the next class I’m teaching.
Angienetro, you should apply to UM for your MFA.
There’s something magical that happens when someone believes in you. A buoyancy that sustains you even after hard truths are told: Angienetro, this story’s not working. Start over. A kind of persistent, unconditional love, a love you never doubt: Angienetro, even when you screw up, I’ll forgive you.
In the ten years between my graduation and his death, I may have spoken to Professor Goran only three or four times. One of those times was back in 2007, when my short non-fiction piece was published. Back then, I remember thinking: I’m so happy; I can talk to Professor Goran now. Where this mindset came from…that communication with my mentor could only happen if I’d achieved something…I’m still working that out. It certainly didn’t come from Professor Goran himself. I can’t remember a single conversation with him about publishing, about publication. This sentiment (success! then communication!) came from a place deep within myself, a place I still can barely explore. But I will try.
A few months before Professor Goran’s death, my mother died. On her last coherent day, she cupped my face with a bloated hand and said, “Angie, I will be so proud of you.” Then she corrected herself: “I am. I am so proud of you.” My beautiful mother, my tough mother: what she said was an unfortunate slip of the tongue. At that moment, her body was full of Zofran and Fentanyl and all other kinds of drugs, drugs that were helping her leave this life as peacefully as possible. I know my mother was proud of me. Of that I have no doubt. But her last words reminded me of a pressure I had put on myself long, long ago. A pressure that had come about because of my mother, but a pressure that had never come from her: as her only child, I wanted my life to somehow fix everything that had gone wrong with hers. She never got the chance to go to college; I did. She never really fell in love; I did. She worked for years in a corporate job that never truly made her happy…I worked at writing, but was I a writer? I’m still unsure about that. And I guess because Professor Goran was my writing teacher, he became associated with that particular aspect of my life, and because I felt unsuccessful in that area, I only talked to him a few times after I graduated. Back in 2007, when my short non-fiction piece was published, I thought Professor Goran would be proud of me and so I called. After an hour’s conversation, I told him I’d talk to him soon, and he said in a soft voice, “Yeah, yeah.” In other words: Angienetro, don’t say things you don’t mean.
On the phone in 2007, I imagined Professor Goran in his office. I called on a Monday because, for the four years I knew him at Miami, I spent almost every Monday afternoon in his office, listening. Only now do I realize: Professor Goran rarely talked about writing, about the craft of writing. Instead, he’d tell me anecdotes about his life, about growing up in the slums of Pittsburgh. He’d talk about things he’d seen on TV. He adored HBO’s Six Feet Under. He’d recount a scene from that show in precise detail, and then he’d end with a complimentary value judgment, one he’d never explain. Only now do I see the ways he made me participate – analytically – both about the world and about myself. When he bestowed compliments about me or about my writing, he never explained himself, letting me craft my own interpretation. When he criticized, he never explained himself then, either.
Once, Professor Goran said, Angienetro, for such a smart girl, you really are stupid. I honestly can’t remember the context in which he’d said this to me, but I do remember the comment was not intended to be mean; it was intended to instruct. It was an honest statement, one from a generous, kind man who cared about me, who wished me the best, who always was my champion, even when I didn’t deserve it. His comment did not reference intelligence, but character. He was trying to help me; he was trying to warn me. He saw in me something I’d yet to see in myself. He wanted me to figure it out: “stupid” yet another judgment bestowed but never explained.
And on the day I learned of his death, I finally knew how right he’d been, how stupid I’d been. How silly: to think that his friendship, his mentorship, depended on my publishing credits. All those years I could’ve had with him; all those empty hours in which I could’ve called, and I didn’t. All those things I could’ve said to him; all those things he could’ve said to me. One of the great friendships of my life: how easily I discarded it. Because of shame. Because of fear. Because I wasn’t writing. Because I wasn’t being published. How incredibly stupid.
Professor Goran, I get it now. Our friendship wasn’t really about writing at all, was it? The writing was the means through which we recognized each other.
Angienetro, you grew up in a blue collar, run-down neighborhood? Me too.
Angienetro, you love recklessly, completely, with everything you’ve got and then some? Me too.
I imagine my mentor in his office, with its huge Henry James portrait, its stuffed bookshelves. I imagine his voice, its soft tenor. I imagine him saying something he most likely never would’ve said if he were still here:
Angienetro, when I talked about stupidity I was talking about this: this pressure you’ve put on yourself. Stop it. Stop it right now. Do you see what it’s done? Do you? Do you finally see?
Yes, Professor Goran. I do.
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