50th Stories: Grace & Luis

By Nancy Larson Shapiro

Teachers & Writers Collaborative will turn 50 years old in fall 2017. To celebrate this milestone, we asked people who have been part of T&W’s work over the last five decades to tell their stories. Nancy Larson Shapiro, long-time T&W staff director and now chair of the T&W Board of Directors, remembers the words that linked one of T&W’s founders to a young man many years younger.

 

After discovering Teachers & Writers Collaborative in 1976, I was incredibly lucky to land a job with the organization, and I devoured T&W’s history, ecstatic with the discovery of the many writers who were part of the organization’s past and present.  One of our “foremothers” was Grace Paley—renowned for her exquisite short stories, for her vigilance in opposing the Vietnam War, for her roles as a teacher of writing and a mentor to students, and for being present at T&W’s founding and writing the “manifesto” that continues to shape T&W’s work. Over my years at T&W, Grace remained the sweetest, most accessible model and supporter: she responded whenever we called her for readings, workshops, help. Her stories and poems kept coming—moving and astounding us. Her feistiness never ceased, including her opposition to the Iraq War, even as she struggled with cancer.

In 1995, T&W honored Grace as part of one of our “Educating the Imagination” events.  At this time, we had students who met in our offices on Saturdays, in a group called “Drama PM” organized by Daniel Sklar, to write and perform, and we asked several of those young people—including Luis Rodriquez—to take part in the program for Grace by introducing speakers and by reading some of Grace’s work. Grace talked that evening about what it means to have an imagination. It was a particularly festive evening because earlier that day the New York Times had published a review of Robert McNamara’s new memoir under the headline “McNamara Recalls, and Regrets, Vietnam,” giving Grace an opportunity to free-associate in her inimitable fashion.

A few years later, in 1998, Luis was tapped again when then US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky asked T&W to provide students to participate in a “Favorite Poem” reading at New York City’s Town Hall to kick-off National Poetry Month. Having heard Grace’s very short story/prose poem at T&W, Luis chose “Mother” to read at Town Hall. In a brief introduction, Luis said that he was reading the poem for his friend, who had just lost his mother to AIDS.  In this story/poem I had always heard Grace’s distinct voice—Bronx accent tinged with Yiddish—and had responded to the compact portrait of her family history growing up with politically leftist Jewish immigrant parents in the Bronx.  However, the work took on all kinds of new possibilities as Luis read. Like Grace, he got laughs on some lines, but mostly what came through were the generational scuffles in his friend’s family—this one Puerto Rican—and the longing for a relationship that death had ended.

A few weeks later, Grace called our office.  She had been driving in Vermont and listening to that Town Hall reading being broadcast on National Public Radio.  She had not known about Luis and his choice of her work, and when he announced his poem and began reading, she said she had to pull off the road in tears. She wanted Luis’s address so that she could send him a note. When I gave her the address, she gave a deep sigh, “He lives on the same street I did in the Bronx.”

 

About the Author:
Nancy Larson Shapiro is the former director of Teachers & Writers Collaborative and currently teaches poetry for Bloomingdale Aging in Place (BAiP).

 

Tell Us Your T&W Story:
We want to hear your T&W story. Please send submissions—written reflections, videos, images—to 50thstories@twc.org by September 30, 2017. Thank you!

 



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