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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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In Praise of English Teachers

It occurred to me today — as R.A. Dickey slipped on the Wrigley Field grass and had his right foot slipped into a protective boot (lord help the Met who nicks himself shaving); and the Mets bore witness to the Cubs’ ability to scamper around the bases in the bitter cold; and David Einhorn introduced himself to us as either our savior or simply another obscenely wealthy hedge fund manager with $200 million getting bored in his back pocket — that 2011 hasn’t been the best of years for English teachers. I’ve lost my two favorites in the past five months.

Dana Brand wasn’t my English teacher, but as word of his passing sunk in throughout Thursday, I considered that there’s a whole other segment of people who are feeling a void right now, people unrelated to Dana by bloodline, marriage or even Mets Fandom. This has to be a crushing blow for his students past and present. When you lose someone who helps you reach inside yourself and communicate with the world around you, it leaves a mark.

It left a mark in January when I lost my English teacher, Mrs. Cuneo.

Technically, I haven’t had an English teacher lately, but Mrs. Cuneo was it for me. She was my ninth-grade English teacher. She, in case you’re wondering, is why you have the opportunity to read me here or anywhere. Mrs. Cuneo is the one who convinced me I was a writer and that I was going to be a writer and that there was no chance I’d be anything but a writer. I’d love to tell you what she said to so clearly blaze that segment of my life path, but I don’t remember. If there was a single flashpoint or conversation, I’ve forgotten it (and since I’m renowned in certain circles for my alleged Marilu Henner-like memory, that’s unlikely).

As best as I could piece together when I was compelled by her death to recall ninth-grade English, I remembered being buoyed by the confidence Mrs. Cuneo exuded on my behalf whenever she read something I wrote, and how she strongly suggested I write something more. It was infectious. This woman was so matter-of-fact about what I could do and what I should do, that I just felt dutybound to follow through. It wasn’t that she taught me some hot new way to conjugate verbs or unlocked the mysteries of participles and predicates for me. She essentially said, “You’re a writer,” and I believed it. Before ninth grade, I was just a kid who could write when called upon to do so. From ninth grade on, writing — like rooting for the Mets — was what I did.

I hadn’t actively thought of Mrs. Cuneo in decades, probably, when I got a phone call in early January from Ellen. Ellen was my seventh- and eighth-grade English teacher. I never called her Ellen then but when we found ourselves in unlikely touch a couple of years ago, she reintroduced herself as Ellen, and since we’re both adults now…sure. Anyway, Ellen called me and said she had some bad news about Jo.

And I was thinking, “Who’s Jo?”

Jo was Josephine. That was Mrs. Cuneo’s first name. Honest to goodness, I never knew that. Maybe “J. Cuneo” on a report card, but otherwise she was Mrs. Cuneo to me — always was, always will be. Well, by whichever name we were referring to Mrs. Cuneo, Mrs. Cuneo had passed away at the age of 87. Ellen knew how much she meant to me, and thought I’d want to know. Mrs. Cuneo’s wake would be taking place not far from where I live, so I would definitely pay my respects.

I showed up at the funeral home on a weekday afternoon and was surprised not so much that there were many people there, but at how many people there were young people — in their early twenties, I’d guess. I learned Mrs. Cuneo had kept teaching until only a few years before, into her eighties. The young people at the funeral home showed up for the exact same reason I did: because their English teacher meant that much to them.

Someone pointed out Mrs. Cuneo’s son for me. I extended my hand and said what I came to say: I’m a writer…and it’s because of Mrs. Cuneo (not “your mother” or “Josephine”). This made the son happy, even though he’d been hearing variations on the theme for a couple of days. After he called his sister over so I could repeat my testimony, he asked me when I had Mrs. Cuneo for a teacher.

“Ninth grade,” I said.

“No, what year?”

“1977-78.”

“1977 — wow.”

Yes, I suppose — wow. By January, it had been about 33 years since the spring of 1978, since Mrs. Cuneo had last encouraged me to write a little more than was required, probably 32 years since I had seen her at all, but her influence has been with me the whole time. Even without the nudge a person’s passing provides, I knew that. If you had asked me ten or twenty years ago, “How did you become a writer?” Mrs. Cuneo’s name would have come up no later than the third sentence of the second paragraph.

Professor Dana Brand at Hofstra University, I’d be willing to bet, had that kind of impact on his students. Good English teachers stay with you. Mrs. Cuneo did. Ellen did. A couple I had in college still do, and college was more than a quarter-century ago. I’ve been on my own as a writer since then, which may be why I so appreciated knowing Dana.

Beyond all the reasons that existed to befriend him and admire him and, sadly, to miss him, he was an English teacher who really liked my writing. He wrote some of the nicest things anybody has ever written about what I’ve written. He did so as a fellow Mets fan and as a blogging peer, but I’m pretty certain deep down that when I would read his thorough critiques or his offhand remarks, I’d see a gold star atop my paper. That English teacher thinks I can write — maybe I can!

Trust me, that feeling never fully goes away.

17 comments to In Praise of English Teachers

  • Now I miss your English teacher, too. And I miss Dana Brand a little bit more. We need more English teachers. Really, really good ones.

  • boldib

    “…and David Einhorn introduced himself to us as either our savior or simply another obscenely wealthy hedge fund manager with $200 million getting bored in his back pocket”

    Yeah, a hedge find manager who’s firm is located in the Cayman Islands (no less – no US Taxes perhaps?) and who built his reputation on short selling -see manipulating the market down for
    profit and glory while retail shareholders get murdered.

    This is a sad day, for me, at least.
    Einhorn should get the guillotine, instead he gets to buy the Mets with some spare cash.

    • boldib

      A sad day for me too for Dana Brand.
      RIP

    • Rob D.

      There are over 10,000 hedge funds domiciled in Cayman.

      • Rob D.

        Sorry…I couldn’t edit for some reason. Apparently Einhorn donates a boatload of cash to the Michael J Fox Foundation and has his own charity. Not all hedge fund managers are bad people, contrary to the nonsense the MSM would have you believe.

        • boldib

          I respect where you’re coming from, but perhaps I’ve been hardened by a decade of criminal mischief from Wall St. I can’t see why I would, can you?

          10000 hedge funds in the Cayman Islands doesn’t make it any less cut-throat – and there are 10000 ruthless men by day who donate to charities and
          sleep well at night. It is an age-old dramatic theme.

          It amazes me that the press (the MSM you speak of) and the blogosphere want to lynch Wilpon over some trivial comments made in passing, yet they don’t show the slightest interest in this matter. To me, this is news.

          You’ve got the intent of the MSM upside down and backwards. It wants you to focus on the nonsense while hedge fund managers, men of questionable character if anything at all, buy my beloved Mets with pomp and praise.

          • Rob D.

            Believe me I am in no way defending these guys, but logic and working for 28 years in NYC tells me you can’t become a wealthy (monetarily) person in this country and not ruffle a few feathers. And I believe (and pretty sure you agree) that you are generalizing when you type that “hedge fund managers” are “men of questionable character”. I simply don’t think that’s true. Are SOME like that? Sure, but that’s true in EVERY business line. EVERY ONE.

            Having said that, let’s agree on one thing…LET’S GO METS!!

  • Jon

    My brother in law–a die-hard Philly guy–found a way to cough up the cash to buy a book sporting Blue & Orange and put it under my tree this past Christmas. That led me to become a Facebook fan of the blog and now I typically read the daily entry on my BlackBerry over morning coffee. Ain’t technology grand. My wife–the connection to said brother in law–is an English teacher who lives a daily frustration of reaching today’s youth. My only hope is that she can realize some of the full-circle inspiration you passed back to Mrs. Cuneo’s family well before her 87th.

    Okay, truth be told it’s not my only hope. I’d love another Shutout-Sweep this weekend.

    Please continue the writing…we’re reading.

  • It wasn’t my English teacher but rather my 6th grade teacher that gave me the confidence to write and pursue that. She even reached out to me on Facebook in the last two years and said that she always remembered that I had a command of the English language at such a young age. I never forgot that, and it made me grateful to have a teacher like that. It wasn’t till college that I had that confidence again, where I was an English lit major, like RA Dickey, like Dana. And when I write about baseball, I’m really writing about myself. Like I’m sure you guys do too.

  • My Mrs. Cuneo was Mr. Patterson, the advisor to my high school newspaper. If it weren’t for Mr. Patterson’s encouragement, there’s no way I ever would have had the confidence to pursue writing or editing as a vocation.

    • My HS journalism teacher/newpaper advisor: Very good on the fundamentals. Fussy, cold and offputting as a human being. But significant in his own way to my development.

      Though by the end of my senior year, he practically had me suspended from school. More from a hissyfit than genuine incorrigible behavior (hissyfit on both our parts).

  • Will in Central NJ

    Rest in peace, Mr. Brand. I just found his “Final Days of Shea” in my to-read pile of Mets books. In my past I recall Sister Mary K. and Mrs. Hague, who taught English and grammar via keeping a journal and via proper conjugating of verbs, respectively. Mastering the fundies, as Keith might say in the booth.

  • Thanks for this and your “youthful enthusiasm” post. I haven’t seen him since I was at Hofstra 17 years ago, but I will miss him nonetheless. What a loss. RIP.

  • Big Joe

    here’s my much-too-long Dana Brand story. had him as a senior at Hofstra a couple years after The Icepick, in the mid 90s–was the last semester of my senior year.

    his class was great–short stories of dead white guys from the early 20th century, basically–and he was one of the only people in that faculty with that kind of syllabus. had great comments on papers; had a rambling discussion style that lent itself well to really getting into a story; he was the real deal.

    but that’s not my story.

    i needed the credits to graduate, i didn’t have the best attendance (running the newspaper and all), and i needed to ace the final: three questions, pick one, etc.

    i nailed it, finishing rather early.

    at the newspaper office about an hour after, when it wrapped up, a buddy in the class came in, asked what i chose for MY SECOND QUESTION!

    in a full sweat, on a hot day, i streaked back across campus, hoping to find Dr. Brand–to explain, to beg, to tell him that if i don’t pass this class that the world will end. life is harder when you’re 21.

    i catch him meandering on the path out of the testing building, shuffling papers, fixing his glasses. “hey, joe,” he says, “what’s up?”

    i babble, i stumble, i spurt out that i’msosorryimisreadthetestandi–

    he cuts me off with his hand, unhurriedly says, “did you read the other stories on the test?”

    it was Fitzgerald’s ‘Babylon Revisited.’ i wouldn’t have missed that for the world. i tell him this.

    “tell me what happens.”

    i do. after about a minute of synopsis, he says, “ok, that’s fine. you’re ok.”

    and that was it.

    weeks later, i found out i got an A in his class. never saw him again.

    thank you, Professor Brand.

    (and, tx, greg, for the really, really nice piece.)

  • richie

    Nice work Greg. R.I.P. Professor Brand and Mrs. Cuneo.