My Best Teacher;Interview;Ariel Dorfman

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
It was 1951. I was nine years old and my family had just moved to Manhattan from Queens. I was an extremely creative, very disruptive child, an exhibitionist. I couldn't sit still. I'd been in a state school where the teacher would regularly send my mother little letters saying: "Vlady is a very bad boy," (at birth, my father had named me Vladimiro). My mother would write on them: "No, Vlady is a very, very good boy," and send them back. That kind of thing is not too good for your education.

I transferred to Dalton, an enormous, experimental and very expensive private school. It was only affordable because I got a scholarship and because my mother had a job there teaching Spanish to the older children, so there was a discount for children of staff.

At Dalton I found a teacher who simply loved me. Her name was Tess Ross and she gave me the space to be myself. I learned more from her in two years than from any other teacher in my life except for Jorge Guzman, the professor of Spanish literature who changed me very drastically at university in Santiago. He taught me how to think.

Tess Ross was a generalist but she basically taught us history and English. She was small and thin, with curly, whitish-yellow hair, and she emanated goodness and tolerance. We studied the Greeks with her and I still know more about Greece from those lessons than from any number of books read later in life. We made papier mache mountains and temples, and lakes and rivers. We talked of myths and we did a play - the first one I ever wrote. I directed it as well.

I was very taken with the fact that the Greeks had flogged slaves and children. So I created this bad guy schoolmaster who was beating up kids, and then I had the gods send Mercury down and punish him. When I finished writing it she made very good suggestions and moved me in the direction of believing in my talent. She taught me to trust my imagination and convinced me that for that imagination to work I had to be disciplined.

Tess - she was always Tess, never "Miss Ross" - convinced me that my energy was not something I should be ashamed of. I should be proud of it, so long as it didn't disrupt others. I had to remember that they had rights as well. It was love that she gave me, basically, and I loved her. But she was loved by all the pupils, and had time for all of them.

She came to our house for dinner several times because my parents were so thrilled that I had found someone who allowed me to develop. My parents were wonderful to me, but as a child you are always suspicious of your parents' love because they're your parents. If somebody older, who's not a member of your family, believes in you, that's very important. Tess thought I was going to do wonderful things.

The next year I wrote a play on the Romans. I did a lot of research for it, making it more serious than the Greek one. I realised later how much freedom she gave me to do whatever I wanted with those plays, instead of saying "It's got to be about this particular theme" or "You have to dramatise one of the myths".

Looking back at the scripts - which I found a couple of years ago - I realised what she must have said to me was "Let your imagination go". Justice and my enormous sense of the equality of people have been major themes in my writing, and both are present in those plays. Injustice has always got me angry.

When we moved on to study the Middle Ages, I had another teacher who didn't like me at all. Instead of allowing me to write something, she said: "We're going to do a play I've written." She gave me a tiny role as an apprentice. I only had to say two words, but I screwed them up, staggering and stumbling around the stage. I think I did it on purpose; back then I couldn't bear not being the star of the show.

To lose Tess when my parents and I moved to Chile in 1954 was a huge blow. I wrote to her and always thought I would see her again. But when I returned to the United States many years later the people at Dalton told me she had died.

I would have loved to have brought her my books, especially the Olivier award for my play Death and the Maiden, and said: "Look, Tess. Thank you." It would not have been the professional success that I would have brought her, as much as the person I am - a man who has a very good relationship with the woman he loves, two wonderful sons and very many good friends, and who is at peace with himself. I wasn't at peace with myself as a child.

I see her influence now in my university teaching. I'm a softie and she was probably a softie too. Most of my students say I'm the gentlest teacher they know, and that's very much from Miss Ross.

Ariel Dorfman, 56, poet, novelist and playwright, was born in Argentina. His play 'Death and the Maiden' won the Olivier Award for Best Play in 1993. His latest novel, 'The Nanny and the Iceberg' (Sceptre, pound;10) and the paperback of his memoir, 'Heading South, Looking North' (Sceptre, pound;6:99), were published in March. He is the Walter Hines Page Professor of Literature and Latin American Studies at Duke University, North Carolina. He was talking to Daniel Rosenthal.

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