I REMEMBER CARMEN FARIÑA

(after Joe Brainard)

by Jonathan Lethem

I remember moving from PS 38 to PS 29 for a special fourth-grade class. Two or three other families from Gowanus sent their kids there. Susan Leong, whose family lived in the Wyckoff Gardens housing project. Another boy named Paul, also from the project. And Lisa Cogen, whose family, like mine, lived on Dean Street. Lisa and I began walking to PS 29 together.

I remember being confused and excited to change schools. Carroll Gardens was like another world to me.

I remember the rest of the class was made up of students who’d excelled at PS 29. Gary Cutick, Vincent Verapoppa, Benjamin Willett, Rusty Cole, and a boy named Adam, whose last name I’ve forgotten, and a boy named John, whose last name I’ve forgotten.

John’s mother worked in the school office. They lived on Henry Street.

I also remember the mysterious and graceful Carlton Tabb, the fastest runner in the school.

I remember Susan Leong and Lisa Cogen and Alison Beletti and Liza Maucelli, who were the only girls I knew and who paid me any attention.

I remember I had a crush on Liza Maucelli. After fourth grade she moved to Manhattan and I never saw her again.

The only teacher I remember before Carmen Fariña was my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Lipnick.

I remember how I understood, many years later, that this group of children became iconic in my imagination because Mrs. Fariña had galvanized our attention. She’d offered us a vision of ourselves as a group moving through the experience of life together.

By making herself unforgettable she made each of us unforgettable as well.

I remember the first thing Carmen Fariña taught me was how to say her name.

I remember learning she wasn’t Puerto Rican or Dominican like most of the Spanish-speakers I’d known in my neighborhood, but that her family came from Spain.

I remember somehow I began to breathe differently in Mrs. Fariña’s class.

The first time I remember doing schoolwork was in Mrs. Fariña’s class. But then I remember the first time I remember avoiding schoolwork was in Mrs. Fariña’s class.

I remember introversion. I remember Mrs. Fariña put a large cardboard box, the kind that is used for delivery of a new washer or dryer, in the back of the room. She decorated it and added a few throw pillows and it became a place I was allowed to go and read books while she taught a lesson.

I wasn’t especially advanced in my schoolwork. But she saw my need for solitary reading as more important than whatever else was going on in class for me on those days.

I remember Mrs. Fariña brought me books to read from her personal collection. I remember reading E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan.

The box wasn’t “mine,” but, somehow, it was.

I remember extroversion. Something in me was freed by the embrace of Mrs. Fariña’s attention. I wasn’t the only one. We were a wild, woolly bunch, like a drawing from Free to Be… You and Me.

I remember how long my hair was and that I wore patches on my flare jeans.

I remember playing hopscotch with Lisa and Allison instead of playing handball with Gary and Vincent and how that wasn’t completely okay with Gary and Vincent but Mrs. Fariña told me it was okay and I kept doing it anyway.

I remember later I challenged Vincent, the best athlete and the kid who was mocking me the most for playing hopscotch, to a hopscotch match. I beat him. Practice makes perfect.

I remember sometimes Vincent twisted my arm behind my back and forced me to the pavement and then ten minutes later it was like we were best friends.

Nobody could have done anything about that.

I remember walking home the long way, up Henry Street to Atlantic Avenue, just so I could spot Mrs. Fariña one more time, in the coffee shop on Henry near Pacific Street, where she sometimes sat after school let out.

I remember her talking to me after school, like we were friends.

I also remember she took the class on a field trip to the old Italian bakery on Court Street, and I had my first taste of a cream puff. I remember talking to my parents about the cream puff for weeks. I couldn’t believe grown-ups didn’t eat them all the time.

I remember Mrs. Fariña asked us to draw a map of an imaginary country. The map was to show political boundaries and areas where agriculture or other industries were located. I remember wanting to impress Mrs. Fariña with my ingenuity and so I drew five different maps of my imaginary nation, each detailing aspects of my nation’s culture: political, religious, industrial, etc.

I remember the excitement when Mrs. Fariña returned the assignment to me with “AAA+++!!!” written on the top of it, a grade I didn’t even know was possible.

I remember my disappointment when the map Mrs. Fariña chose to display for the class wasn’t my five-map extravaganza, but Susan Leong’s impeccable single map.

It wasn’t until I was a teacher myself that I understood Mrs. Fariña hadn’t passed over my map in favor of Susan’s because of Susan’s superior handwriting, or because she wanted to protect the other children from the glare of my brilliance. It was that my map simply wasn’t a useful teaching example for her that day.

Not that I’m holding grudges! Hi Susan Leong!

I remember the summer after fourth grade Mrs. Fariña invited her students in sets of two to spend a long weekend with her and her husband Tony at their vacation home in the Poconos. Lisa and Liza went together, and then Benjy Willett and I went together.

I remember fantasizing that I could have gone to the Poconos with Liza, but never mind.

I remember in the Poconos we drove along a road that curved up and down and Tony drove very fast along the bumps so that it felt like a roller coaster. I remember Mrs. Fariña made me and Benjy root beer floats in the carpeted basement room of the house. I’d never had a root beer float before.

I remember in that same carpeted room, Mrs. Fariña taught me one of the most lasting lessons she’d ever teach me: not to assume I knew everything already. She taught me that by asking me whether I’d ever heard Elvis Presley.

I was a little music snob already, based on my parents’ record collection. I thought the only music from before the Beatles that was good was jazz and folk. I thought Elvis Presley was just some cheesy Las Vegas singer. Mrs. Fariña brought out a pile of really great Elvis Presley records and changed my life.

I’ve listened to Elvis Presley ever since.

I remember one day I felt sick to my stomach and I wanted Tony to drive slowly over the bumps but I was so shy around Tony that I had to ask Mrs. Fariña to ask him for me.

I remember how sensational it felt that I’d been taken to the Poconos by my teacher.

Benjy and I were special friends after that. Benjy lived on Kane Street, and I started spending nights at his house.

I beat Benjy at Monopoly every time we played. I cheated by taking money from the bank when Benjy wasn’t looking.

Nobody could have done anything about that, either.

I remember they transferred pretty much all of Mrs. Fariña’s fourth-grade class into the same fifth-grade class at PS 29. Nobody could have matched the standard set by Mrs. Fariña, it wasn’t a reasonable thing to ask. We were pretty hard on the teacher who followed, for not measuring up.

I remember smart kids who mob up against a teacher can be pretty cruel.

I remember I had Mrs. Fariña sign my graduation book, and she wrote a long note which finished by advising me to remember to always stop and smell the flowers.

I remember being puzzled by this message at the time, and then thinking she had me wrong, that I already knew how to stop and smell the flowers. But Mrs. Fariña knew me better than I knew myself. She saw the future.

I’m a terrible workaholic and I’m still trying to take her advice.

At graduation they had an award for perfect attendance. I was never in the running for that.

I remember in the wilds of Intermediate School 293 the close feeling among us began to thin, somewhat.

Nevertheless I remember I took my lunch break outside IS 293 with Lisa Cogen and Alison Beletti. We went to the pizzeria on Court Street for a slice. This was a faint residual trace of my old PS 29 schoolyard hopscotch lunch hour.

I remember looking for Mrs. Fariña around Court Street, hoping to catch a glimpse of her at the Italian bakery, perhaps buying a cream puff. No dice.

I remember when my sister got to have Mrs. Fariña as her teacher I was excited and also jealous.

I remember I visited PS 29 and presented myself to Mrs. Fariña once during my high school years. I would have been dressed as a teenage punk rocker. God knows what kind of impression I made.

I remember when I heard she’d become a principal. I wasn’t surprised, since I thought of her as a genius teacher, and I couldn’t be the only one who noticed. Still, I was proud and impressed. She’d hit the top of her profession!

I remember when I decided, at age nineteen or twenty, that my first published book would be dedicated to Mrs. Fariña. It took me a decade to keep that promise.

I remember finding out where to send her a copy of the book, but I can’t remember whether I remembered to do it or not. Sorry.

I remember around the time of my fifth novel, and Time Out New York picked me as one of the “100 Most Influential New Yorkers” or something. The magazine threw a big party (not all the honorees went, but I remember meeting Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Mrs. Fariña’s daughter was there. She worked for Time Out. I remember being happy because this meant Mrs. Fariña would know I’d been picked.

I remember that shortly after that, when I’d just published The Fortress of Solitude, we were both invited to address a gathering of teachers together. She was something more than a principal—it turned out she still had a ways to go.

I remember that was when she convinced me I could call her Carmen, which was a leap for me.

And I remember from then on our public fates became slightly but importantly linked, and how much that meant to me.

I remember how obnoxious I was, boasting that she’d become the chancellor.

I remember when she and I appeared together at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and I talked about her fourth-grade class and its influence on me, the New York Post reported it as “Schools Chancellor Kept Bestselling Author in Cardboard Box.”

That’s tabloid journalism for you.

One last thing I remember:

I remember while I was writing The Fortress of Solitude, I had to keep my autobiographical character from being transferred into the fourth grade at PS 29, because it would have wrecked the story to give him all the advantages and encouragement and perspective and love and cream puffs and Elvis Presley records in the Poconos and “AAA+++!!!” that Mrs. Fariña bestowed on me.

Poor kid.

Novelists can be cruel to their characters sometimes.

Copyright © 2018 by Jonathan Lethem

JONATHAN LETHEM is an American novelist, essayist, and a short story writer. His books include the novels Motherless Brooklyn, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award, and The Fortress of Solitude, a New York Times bestseller. His first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, was dedicated to Carmen Fariña. In 2005, he received a MacArthur Fellowship.